This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

Well, we’re one day into Lent and I’m already struggling. The next five weeks give us time for self-examination – not the same thing as selfish introspection – and I never find this comfortable. And it reminds me of a very long car journey (from Leicestershire to Linz in Austria) with my family nearly twenty years ago.

The biggest surprise was not my youngest son marvelling for hundreds of miles down the Autobahn at the size of the place called ‘Ausfahrt’ – it actually means ‘Exit’ – but when the same small voice asked me: “Dad, in Star Trek why do they say ‘Beat me up, Scottie’?”

How we larfed.

What it proved, of course, is how easy it is to mishear or misunderstand what is really going on or what someone is actually trying to say. Just how long my son had mused on the masochistic nature of Star Trek I have no idea; but, it clearly coloured his take on sci-fi.

This isn’t new, is it? A reading from the Bible yesterday complained that God’s people had got the wrong end of the stick. They were supposed to fast and pray in order to expose themselves to the real stuff deep within them and examine their common life; but, they had turned this spiritual discipline into a way of showing off how pious they were. And Isaiah the prophet asks: can’t you see the irony when you pray to God for the poor while trampling all over them? If the language of your worship contradicts the living of your life – or the shaping of your society – why aren’t you embarrassed?

The point is that it is dead easy to spot the gaps between the talk and the walk of other people, and really hard to spot our own. It’s what Jesus pointed to when he suggested people should pay attention to the plank in their own eye rather than the speck of dust in someone else’s.

Well, that’s easier said than done. But, while hoping that Scottie recovers from his self-generated beatings, I now have the next month or so to shine a light on my own gaps and see what – under the gaze of a merciful God – can be done about them.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 with Sara Cox (and after a nice chat with Strictly dancers Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe):

Guess whose birthday it is today?

OK, yeah, Paris Hilton and swimmer Rebecca Adlington … and probably a few thousand people listening to the programme now – in which case, happy birthday to you.

But, the one I am thinking about is Ed Sheeran. 26 today. How do I know? Well, someone told me he originally comes from Hebden Bridge in my patch of West Yorkshire, and I thought I’d check it out. They’re right … and I noticed that it’s his birthday today.

So, open your ears: I’m going to pause for a thought (which means thinking out loud) about one of his best-known songs – recently nominated for a Grammy. Love yourself is a great command … or invitation. After all, there are plenty of people who don’t love themselves – or don’t believe themselves to be lovable – and who sometimes then find it difficult to love others.

There is a link here that Jesus got in one when he asked his followers to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Actually, he was picking up on a maxim that had already been around for a thousand years or more, but he gave it a new twist – and it goes a bit like this:

Loving yourself can turn you into a narcissist who sees everyone and everything through a lens shaped only like yourself. (Apparently, even leaders of countries are not exempt from this.) This makes me the centre of the world – even other people’s worlds. It isn’t attractive, and it can produce dreadful selfishness.

So, this is why Jesus gets the order right: loving God turns your attention away from needing to justify your own worthiness and focuses on something much more fundamental. I matter because I am made in the image of God. Therefore, I see myself through God’s eyes: infinitely valuable and eternally loved. So, what do I do with this? Well, it turns me outwards to love other people whose value is to be found in the same way. I am loved, therefore I love.

So, Ed has got it right: love yourself, but only once you know you are loved. And then pass it on.

So, happy birthday Ed Sheeran. Have a good one, and may it be filled with love.

One of the questions constantly raised about the term “freedom of religion or belief” is that “belief” is assumed to be synonymous with “blind assumption”, “mere opinion” or “wishful thinking”. Having just finished with the IPPFORB in Berlin – read Angela Merkel's speech from yesterday in the Reichstag here but only in German – the matter is current.

One way of illustrating what really constitutes “belief” is to look at Mark's Gospel – the shortest of the four in the New Testament. The key to understanding Mark's narrative is found in verses 14-15 of the first chapter:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Right at the outset of his public ministry Jesus sets out his stall – against which he will be held accountable. So, what does he mean by these four phrases?

The people have been longing and praying for the time when the Roman occupying forces will be expelled and the people (of God) will get their land, their worship and their freedom back. Jesus boldly states that the time has come – that the presence of God is now among them again. But, the evidence of their eyes tells them that he can't be – because the Romans are still there. And the holy God cannot be contaminated by being present among the blasphemous heathen.

So, Jesus tells them to repent: not to grovel in humility at the recognition of their sinfulness, but, literally, to “change their mind” ('metanoia' in the Greek). Here repentance means changing the way they think about God, the world and us. So, the logic of the fourfold statement is this: change the way you (a) look at God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (b) see God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (c) think about God, the world and us, in order then to commit yourself to what you now see and think about differently. Here, “believe in the good news…” means to commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see differently … in this case the possibility that God might dare to confound our expectations and expose himself to the world as it is, contaminating it with love and mercy and grace.

I think this is a simple illustration of what is involved in believing. It isn't merely giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and the world; rather, it means committing oneself to a world now seen differently.

It is this element that our culture too easily ignores. It is now possible simultaneously to believe several mutually contradictory things about life and human meaning without being embarrassed, because we have lost the link between belief and commitment (with all its consequences for good or I'll) to the subject/object of that belief.

And it is this inconvenient commitment that is causing too many people to be persecuted and oppressed in the twenty first century. You generally don't get crucified for hosting a weird private idea that makes no difference to the real world.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, following the terrorist attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and in the light of increasing numbers of post-Brexit racist attacks in the UK:

“How long, O Lord, how long?” is the three thousand year old cry of a Hebrew poet – not an expression of misery from England football fans. It is a cry that burns in the heart and sometimes escapes the lips of those who look at the world and weep at yet another tragedy, another offence. The horror of Istanbul is just the latest in a litany of horrors. On the eve of the centenary of the slaughter at the Somme, we encounter again the sort of savagery that strips away the veneers of civilisation that we long for.

Airports are terrible targets. These are places where different worlds intersect – where diverse humanity glances off each other in transit as we circle our tiny planet. They should be places of encounter, of surprise and reconciliation – departures crisscrossing arrivals. They are places where the world connects and we are exposed to the richness of humanity and culture.

So, it is not only tragic when people-haters attack innocent travellers in the name of their violent ideologies, but it strips us of our longing for peace. “How long, O Lord, how long?” (Perhaps a question the Lord ought to be asking us.)

But, talking of stripping away the veneers of normality or civilisation, we are compelled to ask where the violence of hatred begins. The last week has seen a marked increase in racist incidents in our own country, with people being shockingly abused in public and cards being sent to Polish children telling them to get out. Maybe we are good at keeping such sentiments under the surface until they are given sanction by the erosion of the social inhibitors that normally keep them in check.

But, just as racism begins not as a screaming campaign of violence, but as a seed that gets watered by silence and by rumour, so does its antidote.

One of the stories Jesus told is pertinent here. The place where God is to be found is like a mustard seed – tiny, easy to tread on. Yet, where it takes root – hidden from sight – it has the potential to grow into a tree whose branches offer a place of refuge and habitation for the birds of the air. Of course, what is interesting about this image is that the branches don't get to be selective about which birds make their nests among them.

This is a picture not just of hospitality, but of nurture. If racism and violence grow from small seeds that are allowed to take root in the minds and hearts of our children, then it is equally true that these will be challenged not by wishful silence, but by the planting, watering and nurturing of seeds that grow hope, commitment and love.

It is not enough to dig up the bad seed; a good one has to be planted in its place.

This is the text of the sermon preached on BBC Radio 4 at Ripon Cathedral in the Christmas Day service at 9am:

It was only very recently that I heard about the tradition at Ripon Cathedral of giving out apples at the end of the Christmas service. I bet the kids can't wait for Easter when they'll get chocolate instead.

I'm now wondering what hidden traditions the other two cathedrals in this diocese have stored up for today. But, given all the traditions that accompany Christmas, at least Ripon still has the power to surprise. Apples on Christmas Day. Really.

Yet, this is what Christmas is supposed to do to us: surprise us … with the presence of God – what John in our gospel reading calls “his glory” – where we least expect it. After all, the people we read about in the original nativity stories had been longing for this – to know that they had not been abandoned, and that God would be among them again. Decades of military occupation by the Roman imperial forces had driven deep the stain of humiliation – the Creator of the Universe apparently defeated by the pagan gods of power and caprice. Where was God to be found when all the evidence of experience and our eyes tells us that he is not here … where we are?

Well, there is a theme running through the biblical story, and it isn't particularly comfortable. For people who think that God is only present where everything is sorted, every problem resolved, every indicator positive, Christmas becomes the epitome of embarrassment. For here, in the birth of the baby in Bethlehem, we are dared to look differently … and see God among us while everything in life remains a mess. The Romans are still here, still fleecing the people, still crucifying the protestors. Life is cheap. And pagan victory is rubbed in the faces of the poor, deluded people who keep hope alive in the face of 'reality'.

But, the people among whom God comes in Jesus of Nazareth are invited to re-think reality – not to be optimists, just hoping everything will somehow get better for them, but hopers who see through the transience of today's powers to the haunting shadow of God's smile: I am for you – Emmanuel, I am with you. Not to make everything nice and tidy. Not to take you out of the world's mess. But, to come to you and stay with you – right where you are, whatever happens, however long history takes.

And this is what goes to the heart of Christmas. God appears not to invade the present in a display of power and glory, but to be born as each of us has been born, and to slip into a tired, complicated, threatening and unsuspecting world at a particular time and in a particular place. No God of generalities or airy-fairy spirituality here – just one who gets stuck in, is down to earth, and who opts in to all that the real world is, and does not exempt himself from it. For those whose world has changed at Kellingley Colliery last week and the Redcar steel industry in recent months, this is particularly relevant where practical hope has to be encouraged and nurtured in the months and years ahead.

Let's just pause for a moment and think about who it was who got invited to the first viewing of the scrap of humanity lying in the feeding trough in that obscure town in that obscure part of the ancient empire. Shepherds are workers, doing their stuff out on the hills, minding their own business, expecting nothing. Yet, they, the religious outsiders, are first to get a Christmas surprise. Later – probably several years later – it is pagan astrologers who come in from the cold in search of something they probably expected to find somewhere more interesting or significant. Again, outsiders to the religious establishment of the time.

It's as if we are being surprised by a God who somehow climbs around the secure walls of our expectations and slips through our prejudices – especially the prejudices about God favouring either our pet religious projects or our self-condemning hesitations about our own worthiness. No, here we hear God whispering about a new way, meeting us where we are, but opening our eyes to a glimpse of living in a new world right in the heart of this world – opening our ears to the haunting echo of a different melody, a rhythm that invites a different dance.

That's what was happening in Bethlehem that night. And that is what we are celebrating this morning. Not just the warm familiarity of a myth that makes us feel better, or the reminder of a fantasy that temporarily anaesthetises us from the horrors and uncertainties of our complicated lives. But, the invasion in the present – as it is – of a new and surprisingly realistic hope.

In fact, the invitation of Christmas might be summed up as this: we need no longer be driven by fear, but can be drawn by hope.

Why? Well, simply because the hope we will glimpse in Jesus as he grows from the baby of Bethlehem to the man of Calvary is one that is shaped not by some formula for self-improvement, nor some political or military project for sorting out the “wrong sorts of people”; rather, it is rooted in the person of God whose face we will see in Jesus and in whose person we will be dared to trust.

Drawn by hope, not driven by fear. In this world, but not of it. Down to earth, but not bound by earth. Invited not to escape from the real world, but, trusting in the faithfulness of God, to plunge ourselves into the depths of the real world as it is now.

So, today we should be tempted – not by apples, perhaps; that one didn't end so well, after all, did it? – to be surprised by the smile of God in the midst of experience. To see in this baby the seed of an inconceivable fruitfulness – that even in and through us, where we are , how we are, as we are, God might give birth to a tiny glimpse of that light that no darkness can extinguish.

A happy Christmas, indeed.

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.

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.