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.

… but you have to go though Friday first.

(In the absence of time to write anything fresh, here is the text of my March letter to the Diocese of Bradford.)

I read an article recently about how electronic communication is speeding up the world and making us more impatient. As the technology improves, so do connections run quicker and our tolerance of delay diminishes. I don’t know about you, but it sounds about right to me. It is hard to stop and wait and enjoy the gaps between words and activities.

wpid-Photo-10-Apr-2012-1307.jpgI say this because Lent is leading us slowly towards an ending that will, in turn, become a new beginning. Lent beckons us to stop, to slow down, to force ourselves to step off the treadmill and make space for reflection and self-examination. Attentive consideration of God, the world and ‘us’ opens up the slow possibilities of repentance (literally, a change of mind), renewal and hopeful living. It is an invitation that is easy to decline – after all, it will involve us in walking with Jesus and his friends (and enemies) to the rubbish dump where a cross haunts the horizon, awaiting its terrorised victim.

I grew up in a church community where it seemed we tried to get from Good Friday to Easter Sunday as quickly as possible. We celebrated the cross as God’s victory… instead of learning to live the story of God’s apparent failure or absence. We just couldn’t stay there as the world falls apart; nor could we live through the sheer emptiness of loss, bereavement and world-ending fear that is Saturday: the dead Jesus in the tomb and the world collapsed. No, we want to get to resurrection and make it all happy again. We escape the painful darkness and embrace the brightness of resurrection day.

But, this is problematic. If we don’t stay with Good Friday and live with the appalling emptiness of Saturday, then Easter itself will be meaningless. We are not supposed to just entertain ourselves theologically with Easter; no, we are supposed to live it, experience it, cry through it, search through it, long through it for hopeful resolution. And when Sunday comes we are to be surprised, bewildered, shocked even.

As a church we are called not only to live the story in our worship and contemplation, but also to use it as a lens for looking attentively at our society and world. The massive increase in food banks, the enormous injustices that are enshrined in our economic systems, the poverty that destroys the lives of ordinary people: all these things (and others) represent for those afflicted by them a long ‘day’ of crucifixion – a slow death of potential, health, esteem, hope. There are people in every parish who might find themselves here.

Berlin August 2010 027Yet, the Christian community is not simply to shout at the darkness or rage against the sinfulness of such a situation. No, we are called to speak the truth about the things that corrupt, that nail godliness to a cross, that destroy hope and potential; and then we are called to offer a glimpse of what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’. This means enabling people to be surprised by Sunday when Friday and Saturday seem so endless.

May your Easter be blessed as we celebrate the resurrection light that confounds the darkness and opens up new hope for God’s world. Let us together light a candle of resurrection in protest at the mock powerfulness of the dark… and then go where the light shines in order to make an Easter difference in the places where God calls us to stay awhile.

No, this isn’t another forum for the ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox.

Just listening to the news this morning and there is a raft of serious ethical issues treated as ‘items of (practical) interest’, but without any time for proper consideration in the constant stream of mediated ‘news’:

  • Gazza’s alcoholism – and who, if anyone, is responsible for ‘saving’ him from himself;
  • Gay marriage – not only what happens to the institution of marriage (regardless of your stance on gay marriage itself), but also the assumptions behind the ‘equality’ language;
  • Nuclear waste – and how we make decisions about the earth and its resources when the consequences of those decisions will be borne by generations to come;
  • Banking – and whether splitting retail from investment risk covers all the moral bases and addresses the continuing underlying cultural issues;
  • Covert operations – when a society wants to be protected (and is harsh when protection fails), but doesn’t address what might be the limits of covert practice in providing such protection… especially given the reality that people working against states or societies aren’t always very nice and usually don’t play by the usual rules’
  • Industrial complexity – like when meat guaranteed to be halal is discovered to have forbidden pork in it… illustrating not just the complexity of industrialised food production, but also the need to respect religious and other human/societal sensibilities.

And don’t get me on to Manchester City and the money around the Premier League.

I guess most of us just lurch from one pragmatic judgement to the next when presented with complex moral issues at every turn. Life is complicated enough. But, it also suggests that we – as a society – need to create more space to slow down, think, reflect on long-term consequences of instant choices. Or, as I put it yesterday, to ‘think deeply’ about why what matters matters.

Maybe, as we approach Lent, there is wisdom in slowing down. Not busy is one way of starting. I need to pay attention to what it is saying, and I commend it.

Lent is often associated with giving up and being miserable. So, I was amused to read that one of my clergy has found a typically positive and creative way to use this reflective time of year.

City Centre Priest, the Revd Chris Howson, who is committed to seeing the city of Bradford thrive again, attended a ‘Positive Bradford’ event in the Midland Hotel. He was so impressed by the hard work going on behind the scenes by different organisations in the city that he decided to make it his Lenten theme in the run up to Easter.

He said: “So, over the next 40 days and nights I will: 1) support Bradford businesses by shopping locally 2) always challenge those who are negative about the city, and remind them why Bradford has so much going for it 3) do something positive, like a street clean or make something beautiful for others to enjoy 4) celebrate the city’s rich cultural and faith heritage by visiting places of worship, local museums, restaurants and beauty spots 5) give to local Bradford Charities that are really making a difference to people lives, such as Hope Housing, BEACON (Bradford Ecumenical Asylum Concern) and Bradford Nightstop.”

Bradford is a great place, but gets lots of knocks – from inside as well as outside. But a creative future demands a recovery of focus on the great resources and assets here already. As Chris Howson went on to say: “This is a great city, and we’ve a lot to be thankful for. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of that. When we know there are problems, our duty is to challenge them and change them – not to just moan and talk our city down. Over the next 40 days, whether we have a faith or not, we can all do something to enjoy our city and make new friends from other cultures along the way.”

Given that C4 is about to run a two-part series called Making Bradford British, some positivity might be needed. It is widely assumed that this series will be negative and compound the negative image of the city. However, we haven’t yet seen it, so we don’t know and can’t know whether the story it ultimately tells is interesting, accurate, helpful, good or bad. What I do know is that we are looking at creative and engaging ways of using it to take a look at the issues we already know are here. But, apart from the crass title (Bradford is British already…), the use of provocative words like ‘segregation’ without further explanation or illustration is a bit wild and reckless.

Anyway, we’ll see what it throws up. A confident community is able to take the hits and turn them into something useful – something I will be interested to help with when the programmes go out in March. And if they present a travesty of reality, we will entertainingly tackle the programme makers. Watch this space.

PS. Another Lent idea comes from a great initiative with children in a tough area of Bradford: here’s the link to Kidz Klub.

 

Life is a bit full-on this week because of a deluge of speaking engagements and my final working weekend in Croydon. So, there hasn’t been much time for blogging.

The work I have been doing in my study has been accompanied by the most hauntingly beautiful music that helps make sense of some of the contradictions of life, yet also makes me feel guilty for being moved by it.

Terezin/Theresienstadt is a collection of songs written by artists condemned ot the concentration camp north of Prague, most of whom were later deported to their death in Auschwitz. Anne Sofie von Otter was behind the project to record the songs, observing that out of the horrors and propaganda of this benighted place came not just death, but also an unquenchable beauty rooted in a hope that was not fantasy.

I am listening to this in the context of a visit by our Zimbabwean Link Bishop and his wife. In Zimbabwe the Anglican Church is being victimised by Mugabe and his fellow losers. Intimidation, brutality and corruption are rife – but the bishops continue to lead their people in resisting and in working for a better future for all Zimbabweans. They make my life look easy. Their experience also relativises mine: is ‘peaceful living’ the norm or the exception?

In this connection it is worth having a look at Charles Reed’s excellent blog and, in particular, his questions about ‘justice’ in the light of current conflicts. But it also underlies the concerns behind Christian Aid‘s imaginative Lent programme which involves me and lots of other people tweeting our progress through a reconsideration of stuff, motivation and lifestyle choices. Join up on Twitter and join in the exercise…

This is a bit of shameless publicity for someone else’s book.

Andrew Rumsey is a wordsmith. A published poet and musician, he is also Vicar of Christ Church Gipsy Hill, contributor to Third Way magazine and columnist for the inimitably funny ship-of-fools. He is a superb preacher and has the rare talent of never being anything less than interesting.

He has pulled together a series of Reflections on God, Life and Bric-a-Brac and got them published by Continuum under the title Strangely Warmed. The book is an excellent companion for Lent (Christmas is nearly over…) and has chapter titles that make you want to read into the book: ‘The mild man of Borneo’, ‘The pigeon of peace’, ‘Unoriginal sin’, and so on. Commendations come from Ian Hislop and Tom Wright and it is brilliant. (The cover pictured, left, is an early draft…)

The blurb says:

Strangely Warmed – short pieces for each day in Lent, designed to be read in the bathroom or on the train, as one would a magazine column. Each piece takes a wry look at the world and reflects on the questions of faith that arise from the everyday — the advertising slogan, the bus journey, the church jumble sale… Drawing on the ingredients of scripture, theology and philosophy, is a collection of Strangely Warmed serious doctrinal points with a lightness of touch, offering bitesized morsels to be enjoyably chewed over, in the hope that this will lead to a deeper reflection on, and appreciation of, Christian faith. 

It is always silly to get into the numbers game, but sometimes you just can’t help it. So, when the National Secular Society has a hissy fit about the Church of England claiming to speak for the whole country and cites (without ever giving evidence for its claims) the ’emptying pews’, it is tempting to ask why there are over a million people in church each Sunday and only 3000 members of the NSS. We know numbers don’t prove anything much: Hitler packed them in at Nurenberg, but this apparent endorsement says nothing about the validity of his ethics.

Anyway, I was having a quick look at the sometimes-interesting online version of New Humanist magazine to see what recent dissing of the C of E has been going on. Much to my surprise I found the following reference to the C of E’s decision to Twitter its Lent stuff under the heading Twits from the Church of England: ‘I don’t know exactly when the C of E Twitter launched, and I’m not setting myself up for a fall by saying they won’t overtake us, but at the time of writing they have 201 followers to our 527. If you’re on Twitter and not following us, we’re on there as @NewHumanist – we promise there’ll be no preaching from our tweets.’ Two issues here:

c-of-e-lent1. Why do they think all we do is preach? And why do they think so many people are so stupid as to be preached at? Why do they have such a low opinion of people’s general intelligence and ability to form their own opinion? I think we treat people with a bit more respect.

2. Notwithstanding the disclaimer, there is a presumption that nobody will be interested in what the C of E might Twitter. So, I made a phone call to find out how many people are now following the C of E Twitter stuff. The answer? 1172. Which is double the 527 quoted by NS magazine. But, maybe their numbers have grown, too.

Anyway, it’s all good fun, isn’t it? But, I’m not sure who the greater twit is in all this.