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

The Dalai Lama was at Glastonbury yesterday, but not for the music. Twice he described human beings killing each other as “unthinkable”.

However, events of the last few days have, once again, demonstrated that human cruelty is all too thinkable. It has proved impossible not to be scarred by the images and sounds of violence in Tunisia, France and Kuwait. And they are simply the latest in a litany of horror and destruction.

I think it is easy to try to block out such images. Yet, the very human stories began to come through very quickly: of fear amid the silence, of desperation in trying to get information when there might not actually be any to get, of loss and shock. And now, as inescapable reality sinks in for those involved, the pain and grief can only grow in power.

And many of us wonder again what sense is to be made of this human propensity for violence – the nihilism that explodes into killing, whether it be dressed up in the clothing of religion, politics or tribalism. Maybe, we need to start by recognising that what William Blake admiringly called ‘the human dress’ has a fitting that also distorts and destroys. The policeman who shot the Tunisian gunman says that the killer had stopped shooting and was praying when he himself was shot. And we rightly ask: to whom was he praying and about what? And what sort of madness is it that makes God in the image of our most depraved imaginings?

Well, two images have imposed themselves on my own mind since the mayhem of the weekend. The first was the President of the United States singing the hymn written by a former slave trader who had been surprised by what CS Lewis called ‘joy’: Amazing Grace. Obama went on to name each of those killed in the racist attack in Charleston, asserting that they had that grace. Not a grace that takes us out of the real world, but one that plunges us into the heart of both its joys and agonies. This, in the light of the forgiveness offered by those bereaved, defies the violence and denies it the end it seeks: a new cycle of destruction and vengeance.

The second image was one I read in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Jeremiah buys a field … whilst besieged by the forces that will shortly occupy the land and drive the people into an interminable exile. In buying that field he invests in a future that cannot now be imagined. It looks ridiculous and wasteful. But, that small act of hope took the power away from the terrorists of the day.

It will be in such small visionary gestures that the demons of violence will be stripped of their crazed power, and a future opened up.

The Diocese of Bradford is currently hosting the Bishop of Khartoum, Sudan, as we celebrate 30 years of a diocesan link. Talking with the bishop over the last few days about the situation facing Christians in Sudan, I keep asking myself the question why a red line has been drawn in Syria, but not in Darfur? President Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, yet the West has not threatened to carry out surgical strikes against those Sudanese military installations that continue to commit murder on a massive scale.

Why not? What is the moral difference between Syria and Darfur/Sudan?

These questions arose not just from conversations with the Bishop of Khartoum, but also from a service in a Bradford parish church this morning.

Church – particularly the Church of England – frequently gets a bad press, yet where else can you find a community of people who consciously belong together, deliberately question their own way of life, dig deep into the stuff of their souls, wrestle with how personal commitment (discipleship of Jesus) connects with (or leads to or derives from) stuff like Syria, Darfur, and so on? Where else do you get this corporate soul-searching in a context of music, silence and attentive listening? What other group brings together (by choice) people of different social strata in one place where attention is paid to looking at the self and beyond the self, encouraging commitment and perseverance, challenging complacency and hypocrisy?

I think we easily overlook just how remarkable this phenomenon is. A congregation thinks of today's routines in the light of the eternal and the global. It hangs on and lives with uncertainty and unresolved questions. Yet, it does so with hope – not wishful thinking, but the hope that derives from “hearing amid the cacophanies of the present the music of the future”.

Anyway, the point I was musing on with the congregation this morning was that when Jesus invited people to follow him, he insisted that they did so with their eyes open. This journey would be no walk in the park, but would throw them together with people they wouldn't choose and might not like – but by following him they would deny themselves the option of choosing company that was convenient to them. Pulling together a passage from Jeremiah (18:1-11) and Luke (14:25-33), we noted that Christians are to be people who, having received the generosity of God, are bound to live generously. However, they must also live out the habit of recognising failure and choosing to change – personally and by feeding the hungry, caring for the destitute, and so on.

And when it seems that, in Jeremiah's language, the potter's clay gets messed up and has to be broken and re-thrown, this is not the end of the story. According to the biblical narrative, (and in the words of Amercian Fransiscan, Richard Rohr) “everything belongs”. Nothing of our life is wasted. The broken bits get collected up and re-worked into something both beautiful and useful. Yet, this should not be easily romanticised: it is painful and hard, and impacts on the emotions, the psyche, lifestyle and self-esteem.

This is what church does. It creates a space in which deep examination and questioning can go on – both of the self and of the world we live in. And it opens up the possibility of motivating a community of people who seek to see the world changed, but starting with themselves. This is the humility of repentance.

And it compels us not to lose hold on the hard questions about self and Syria, the local and the global, the temporal and the eternal.

It is also hugely enjoyable.

 

Talk about mixed feelings. I was back in Liverpool for my mum’s 80th birthday great-big-family bash on Friday and listened on the car radio to the harrowing accounts of Anders Behring Breivik‘s cold-blooded murdering of 77 people in Norway last year. I know our minds do weird things sometimes, but while this was happening I had the Beatles going through my head. Norwegian Wood. But for those (mostly) young people on the Norwegian island, the woods were no place of sanctuary, but of agony.

It has been interesting listening to the commentaries and reading the commentariat on this appalling massacre – which cannot be easily attended to while the killer is given so much air time to describe his activities. Some commentators seem to think that he must be insane to have done these things – that a normal, rational person could not have done them, let alone contemplated them. This, of course, is nonsense. Breivik had a perfectly rational construction to his ideology – but to speak in terms of ‘moral evil’ is too inconvenient for some world views.

Fifteen years ago I half-wrote a book on the pastoral care of people bereaved through suicide. One of the things I found interesting (before I ditched the project) was the response of too many people: that anyone who commits suicide must be (literally) out of their mind. Perish the thought that this might be an act consistent with a particular world view that sees life as painful and pointless.

This is also on my mind because yesterday I returned to the parish where I became vicar twenty years ago. We moved to Rothley, Leicestershire, in April 1992 and left in April 2000 when I became Archdeacon of Lambeth in the Diocese of Southwark. It had been (for us, at least) a wonderful eight years, and I wept when it came to the leaving. I was asked to preach this morning on the parish’s text for 2012, taken from Jeremiah 29:11, and all about ‘a hope and a future’.

My problem in preparing to preach was twofold: (a) the text is neither bland nor obvious; (b) I know too many of the people listening to it – I have buried their husbands, walked with them through their traumas, celebrated their triumphs and wept through their griefs. So, I didn’t know if I could ask the obvious question provoked by the text: what do you do when your world falls apart? To cut a long story short, I managed to overcome the emotional poignancy and say what I think needed to be said from that text.

Jeremiah 29 sees the people exiled to Babylon being offered hope instead of ear-pleasing fantasy. Another prophet has told them what they want to hear; but, Jeremiah – never a populist – tells them the truth. Sitting on the banks of the Evil Empire’s rivers and being mocked as defeated fantasists, how do we keep ‘singing the Lord’s song’ – when all the evidence of our eyes and experience tell us a different story? Jeremiah simply tells the truth. Which is?

  • No one is exempted from all that the world can throw at us – especially not those who claim to see through God’s eyes and try to live his way. As we see in Jesus, God opts in to the stuff – the muck and bullets – of the world and does not exempt himself from it. His people should learn from this.
  • Hope has always to be vested in the person of God and not in any formula for ‘making everything better’. And why trust God? Think ‘resurrection’…
  • God will not be rushed (as Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama constantly reminds us). We live in time, and time takes time. We need to learn to wait and be faithful during the waiting. (We also need to be honest with God and one another and scream when we need to; there is no place for pretence with God. Look at the searing honesty of the Psalms.)

Underlying all this is the simple stuff: God’s grasp of us is more important than our grasp of God. So, relax and take the pressure off. A future with hope is not the same as a hope for a particular future. As Timothy Keller has written: “Christianity is not advice, but news.” Christians should never be embarrassed to announce the news that God has not abandoned us – learn to wait and be faithful, even if you will be long dead before the deliverance comes. And God’s not abandoning us must compel us to demonstrate this by us not abandoning anyone else – which goes well beyond the Christian community itself and into the wider world.

I recall Jürgen Moltmann’s great lines: “God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.”

Life is sometimes total rubbish and we cannot simply escape it. Indeed, being Christian might actually be the cause of it sometimes. But, we can learn to help each other by creating the space in which the suffering can be lived with and not rushed. And the church can learn to provide its people in worship with a vocabulary for those times of complaint, lament, argument, questioning and pleading… as well as for those times of resolution, praise and celebration.

I miss being part of a community like Rothley.

(And I have come home to Liverpool’s latest home defeat. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…)