Killing four hours in Istanbul Airport isn't easy. The last time I was here, my connection (to Astana, Kazakhstan) had left here before we had even left London Heathrow. While waiting for a substitute flight with Air Astana we were given vouchers for a gourmet meal in Burger King. It wasn't funny.

This time I am doing some reading. Which brings me on to…

… two books I have read recently that have proved worth recommending.

Charlotte Methuen's Luther and Calvin: Religious Revolutionaries is a beautifully written introduction to the life, teaching and impact of two of the great European Reformers. Sometimes, when listening to English evangelicals talking about ' the Reformers' in awed tones, it might seem that these were paragons of orthodoxy, defenders of simple revealed truths about God and us. We quickly reduce them to simplistic-but-useful reinforcers of our own theological preferences. Sometimes it seems we award them the same authority as that claimed by the popes they opposed. Read the reality and a different picture emerges.

Of course, they were creatures of their time and they didn't know the end of their own story. But, their stories make it clear that their theology developed and changed, their theology was often driven by their politics, and their theology might well have developed even further if they had lived on (or in other times and contexts). We dig them into a framework that suits our own preferences and then quote them accordingly. It is always amusing to hear Hooker quoted by all sides in current Anglican debates…

Reality is always more ambiguous and more complex than our debating points would allow.

The full(er) picture is to be found in Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial Reformation, but Charlotte Methuen's concise book does the business. It is surely coincidental, but reading the book during the synodical debates on the Anglican Covenant and women bishops caused the ringing in my head of lots of bells.

The second book I finished on the plane from Manchester to Istanbul. I know of Mark Thomas only from the occasional telly programme and his very funny People's Manifesto. Extreme Rambling is a powerful, poignant and perceptive record of his walk along the length of the Barrier erected in Israel-Palestine. He walked it in three stages, meeting people along the way and asking lots of questions. It isn't an encouraging book unless you approve of Israel's treatment of Palestinians and think the illegal settlements are a really good idea. But, it is so well written – a personal narrative that takes you into the heart of some of the fundamental problems of this beautiful and tiny piece of land.

Having read up on the history and politics of Sudan, I am now on to William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise. Ideal for a plane journey.

[Written Saturday 12 January, posted Monday 14th. Boyd book finished…]

 

Christmas Eve saw my wordy mind run into overdrive.

In the end this morning’s Christmas sermon at Bradford Cathedral focuses on the need to be surprised once again by the Christmas story. (A bit like I was when driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem past a Palestinian village called Abu Ghosht (which sounds like a curry, but isn’t…) and saw next to an illuminated McDonald’s sign another which read:

Sea of Life – Yes to carrots

No, I still have no idea what that was about.

Comedian Mark Thomas writes in his book Extreme Rambling:

Anyone with any taste knows that predictability is the woodworm of joy.

The surprise of the shepherds bit of the Christmas story is that they appear at all. They are the unwashed who work the hills and are probably surprised to find themselves included in the party. (I still think we might be truer to the gospel narrative if we sang ‘O come, all ye faithless…’.) Strip everything else away and we are left, like the shepherds, with the unimpressive sight of a scruffy baby in a trough – the unimpressive greatness of the small.

Helmuth James von Moltke was imprisoned in Tegel in September 1944 by the Nazis. Founder of the Kreisau Circle (opposition to Hitler), he was 37 and had a family. On Christmas Eve 1944 he wrote to his wife Freya:

My cell is a very suitable place to stay during Christmas because it makes clear that all the magic that surrounds Christmas – the loved ones and the carols, the tree and the presents – are only extras… and that it all comes down in the end to one line in the Gospel of Luke: ‘For to you today is born a Saviour.’

He was executed on 23 January 1945.

In the darkness of a world in which Syria shreds people’s lives and hopes and in which children can be shot with cold impunity in Newtown – in which people live on the streets of a civilised country and children go hungry every day – it is sometimes hard to see the light that (according to John’s Gospel) has mugged the darkness, leaving it helpless and impotent. We cry out for the light – but only agree to see it where we expect or want to see it.

Christmas shows us people who were drawn by curiosity to leave the familiar and look for the surprise. Curiosity is the antidote to joyless predictability.

It is curiosity that needs to be awoken as we encourage people (including me) to live the story in the weeks and months to come – being surprised by the God who smiles at our comforts and shines a different light into our faces.