So, we are now a couple of days on from the EU Referendum in the UK. We have no credible government leadership. Her Majesty's Opposition is falling apart and incapable of offering any leadership or alternative vision. Those who led the campaign to leave the EU are conspicuous by their absence – not unreasonably as – a point made loudly during the campaign – they had no power or authority to do anything once the vote had been taken. Although run like a general election campaign, Leavers had no responsibility to plan, no authority to promise anything (including how much might be committed to the NHS), and no accountability for doing anything once the vote was over.

Therefore, their absence or silence is entirely reasonable.

What is unreasonable, however, is the absence of any government planning for what a Brexit vote might mean. Our political life has become reactively tactical rather than strategically prepared. I guess it just proves that everyone (including most Leavers) assumed that we would remain in the EU, but the protest would have been heard. It is the government's responsibility to plan for all eventualities, but it isn't easy to see who is now driving the bus.

Two points as we live through the chaos. First, the fact of present uncertainty is not the major issue. Life is always uncertain; major national decisions – including general elections – inevitably cause uncertainty. That so many people seem to have believed the claims that everything would now be rosy and that a free UK would lead the world from this small island says something about our internal national fantasies. The chaos will last for some time; some believe it is worth the cost.

Secondly, we always have to shape life in the light of unexpected turns of events. What the Germans, among others, are now telling us is that decisions have consequences and those who make them must take responsibility for those decisions. That is what we call “being grown up”. So, we need to get on with it – whoever the “we” is in the midst of the unforgivable political power vacuum we now inhabit.

And the petition for a second referendum will not work. Would the same plea from the Brexiters have been accepted, had the vote gone the other way by the same margin? The best hope would be for David Cameron to call a general election now and allow the matter to be resolved in the place where power and responsibility (to say nothing about authority and accountability) are directly affected by that vote. I won't hold my breath. In the meantime, of course, the Europeans we have dismissed, derided, abused and mocked in our public discourse will feel no need to be nice to us in what lies ahead.

Now, what do Christians do in all this? Well, as in church this morning in Ilkley, we pray. We make the space for all-comers to hold together in a common space where different views and emotions are strongly held. We can provide a space where the nerve can be held while the political vacuum persists. And – the real power of this – it can be done locally, at every level and in every place. Nothing magic; just space for people to stick with this one for a while.

After all, we are realists. Our foundation narrative reaches back 3,000 years to a people who, led from oppression and captivity in Egypt (in the narrative metaphor used by one or two Brexiters during the campaign), did not drop straight into the land flowing with milk and honey. First they spent forty years in the desert while a generation of romanticisers and fantasists died off; then there was a fair amount of violence before they began to prosper in their land. As Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama urges in his book 'Three Mile and Hour God', the temptation to rush out of the desert is dangerous; we have to have the courage to stay there, to live with it while we go through the process – which we know from history – cannot be rushed.

As the prophets of the Old Testament teach us, when empires die and tactical alliances implode, the thing to do in the desert is to keep alive the songs of 'home' – to hold out a vision of a better way … and a way of living through this present reality with hope, imagination and commitment.

Lamentable though it is, we are where we are. What matters now is how we shape the vision for what we want to become … and devise the strategy for getting there.

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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…)

When I was a languages student in the late 1970s I remember thinking I ought to get some culture and venture into a theatre. We were studying existentialist literature and ideas in one of my classes, so when I saw that Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting For Godot was on at the university theatre I decided to give it a try.

beckcolorized3It was an amazing experience and helped me fall in love with the theatre. Not a lot ‘happens’ (in terms of ‘action’) in this play, but it is attention-grabbing all the way through what amounts to nothing but dialogue. In the fifty years since it hit the London stage 50 years ago, it has continued both to shock and delight audiences in equal measure.

In the words of the blurb for the new touring production by Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ronald Pickup and Simon Callow:  ‘There had never been a play like it; two men clowning around, joking and arguing, repeating themselves, as they wait through one day and then another, waiting for the mysterious Godot. The combination of music hall, poetry and tension redefined what is possible in theatre, so that these days, Waiting for Godot is accepted as one of the most significant plays of the 20th century. Beckett’s characters have lost none of their power to fascinate and amuse…’

Waiting for Godot was Beckett’s first play and is set around two central characters, Estragon and Vladimir, who spend two days waiting for the play’s namesake – two tramps pondering the meaning of life while they wait for a man who never comes. It has a reputation for being raw and bleak, depicting the apparent meaninglessness of life; but it is actually funny, thoughtful and often exhilarating. It depicts loneliness, but also the power of human beings accompanying each other through life and all life can throw at us.

godot-1In the fascinating interview on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme the actors discuss the play’s power and messages. In the course of it the actors discuss the indissolubility of the human need for companionship and the other. Faced by the ‘void’ of life’s meaninglessness, we wander through life together and need one another. McKellen speaks of having grown up ‘waiting for something’ and recognises that the point it that the characters – for all their complications – are waiting together. It is full of compassion and touches on love, having no illusions about the human condition.

This also brings it home to a Christian like me that you can’t force people to ‘meet’ God(ot) until God(ot) is known to have come. In other words, you have to wait for people to wait. The meeting can neither be rushed, nor compelled. yet, this is integral to the whole of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures: we have to learn to wait and let life take its time. It was the Asian theologian, Kosuke Koyama, who wrote about the ‘Three Mile an Hour God’ who leads his people into the desert and invites them to slow down and find that he is walking slowly and not rushing from place to place in a frenzy of ‘progress mania’.

I would love to see this production of Waiting for Godot and recover what Beckett had (unwittingly?) spotted about the human need for love and honesty and the call to wait – and not worry too much if nothing happens for a while.