This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the wake of the UK’s political situation.

The Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan once wrote “the times they are a-changing”. I think he was probably thinking of the particular times in which he was living. But, it now sounds like a statement of the obvious. Time is always changing. That’s the point of it.

But, an equally famous hymn, often sung at Cup Finals and funerals, contains the miserable line: “Change and decay in all around I see,” implying that the two go together – that change is inevitably sad.

Well, events of the last few years should really put this into perspective. A week or two ago I was in Germany, taking part in events in what – not so long ago – was the Communist East. The bipolar post-war world I and my German friends grew up with seemed “just the way the world is”. Yet, now, Germany is united, the Soviet Union has gone, Donald Trump is in the White House, we are leaving the European Union, migration has changed everything, stability has become a fantasy for most people, and the future looks fragile and uncertain.
Which just shows that reality trumps certainty every time. And the promise of certainty often proves to be a fantasy.

I can never escape this. The starting point of Christian faith is a coming to terms with mortality. From dust we have come, and to dust we shall return. All life is like the grass that grows and gets blown away by the wind. Everything has its season, so don’t get caught up in the vain pursuit of … er … vanity. Faith is not an escapist holding on to a way of seeing the world that defies reality; rather, it can be described as a lens through which reality is recognised and faced – without fear.

In other words, we need to live with humility in the face of what might be possible – as what might be possible does not always coincide with what we might find desirable or convenient. Change is a constant, and an achievable vision has to be able to respond to it.

So, the hard question has to do with what roots us while we and everything around us changes? If my life is the relentless chasing after security or perpetuity – what someone called “gaining the world but losing one’s soul” – I might well be very disappointed. Jesus never seduced anyone into following him, but invited them to go with him on a journey that could lead anywhere – even to a cross.

One theologian wrote: “God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.” We don’t know what the future holds. It is uncertainty that is normal. We have to learn to embrace it.

Advertisements

This is the text of an article published in the Yorkshire Post today:

A couple of years ago a book was published that offers readings, prayers, poems and reflections for Remembrance. It is called ‘Hear My Cry’ – a repeated and heart-felt wrenching of the spirit taken from the Psalms.

But, it is the subtitle that grabs the attention: ‘Words for when there are no words’.

It sounds like a ridiculous paradox, yet anyone who has ever found themselves in despair will know exactly what it means. There are times in life – and always in the face of death – when we find ourselves empty and silent. As human beings we seem made to make shape out of chaos; but, bereavement can leave us simultaneously speechless and desperate for order. And we find we cannot control the grief or make it better.

In such circumstances we sometimes need the words of others when we have no words for ourselves. Someone else needs to provide the vocabulary for grief, the words for when we have no words and silence is too painful.

If this is true of most bereavements, it is particularly true when death is violent and distant. To lose a son or father or daughter or wife or husband in the course of military conflict brings a particular silence, a particular grief. The distance and the unknowing of the context makes the death more grievous – even if death is always death.

I have never lost anyone close to me in war, but my parents lived through the bombing of Liverpool during World War Two. I also took part in the intelligence support for British forces in the South Atlantic, and saw the consequences for those who were involved and had to live with the deaths of friends and colleagues.

If Remembrance Day did not exist, I think we would need to invent it. For two reasons:

First, we need to create a public event of remembering the people and events that have shaped the society to which we belong and in which we invest. Those whose loved-ones have died in conflict on our behalf need that public recognition of their loss. For their loss is our loss. Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn watched the coffins of slain Canadian troops being carried off a military aircraft in Afghanistan several years ago, and wrote a song about it. Having described in the most moving language the tragedy and dignity of what he had witnessed, he writes: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me”. That’s why need to remember publicly.

The second reason is that we simply cannot know who we are if we don’t remember where we have come from. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t easy to do. Our memories are selective and some memories do need to be left where they belong: in the past.

The story of Israel in the early chapters of the Bible is one in which public acts of remembering are integral. Prior to entering the Land of Promise the people are warned that they will too easily forget that once they had been migrants and slaves in a foreign land. Once they got their own land and built new lives they would prosper … and forget their own origins. Basically, they would then begin to treat other people as their slaves. So, the year was broken down into festivals that would compel the people to re-tell and re-enact their story, passing it on to their children and future generations. It would cost them the first and best ten percent of their harvest. And the edges of their fields would be left for homeless, hungry and sojourning people to find sustenance. That sounds like a twenty percent tax for starters.

Most religious communities shape the year similarly, celebrating festivals that shape our memory and remind us of what matters – especially that we are mortal, that we shall one day die, that a good society might be worth dying for. The loss of such festivals in secular society might be more costly than we realise.

The point is that we as a society need at least one day a year when we re-member – literally, put back together the parts (members) of our own story. We need to recall the cost that people have paid and continue to pay for preserving the freedoms we have. We need to recall with honesty and integrity those things which we should celebrate and those of which we should be ashamed – from which we might learn for the future.

That is where Remembrance Day fits in. Whether directly connected to the dead or bereaved, we come together in local communities to create space for remembering our common story. It stops the routine of life and creates silence in which we drop words for when words need to stop and silence reigns. We do it together, conscious of how fragile our lives are and how fragile our civilisation is.

It is said that we should know for what we would die. I think we should ask ourselves for what we, in the light of our mortality, will live for.

 

The great thing about getting away on holiday is the time to think, reflect and consider. Arriving on holiday to the mother of all thunder storms (started about four hours ago and still hammering), there isn't much to do other than think, reflect and consider.

Or read and think and consider.

At a business breakfast in Huddersfield last month I was given a book – strongly recommended as powerful and moving. That's usually enough to turn me off. After all, I have more books still to read than there is time to live. But, this one has proved its hype.

Nick Coleman is a man who lived music – then lost his hearing. But, his memoir isn't miserable or cloying; rather, the radical loss of music sent him deep into exploring. – sometimes explaining – how music works on the soul. Actually, it isn't just about music; it's about art and taste and love and growing up and mortality and loss. I don't want to quote it here, or give page references for a quick dip into its pages. It has to be read from the beginning. Don't miss his observations on Christmas carols or Soul music. And it is beautifully written.

The book is called The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss.

I read it against the backdrop of two recent albums: Leonard Cohen's Popular Problems and Robert Plant's Lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar. Both are differently preoccupied with mortality, joy and loss – both with an honest realism that puts regret and self-pity in their place.

Someone said recently that this is the album Cohen's (now 80 year old) voice was made for. I thought that of both Live in London and Old Ideas. Seeing him live at the Manchester Arena last year will live with me for ever – as will having to leave before he finished in order to get the last train back to Bradford, thus missing nearly forty minutes of encores.

They used to say that Cohen's earlier recordings were “music to slit your wrists to”. Of course, they never were. The humour was always there. But, age has brought it out as he has relaxed from the demands of … er … probably his libido. He sings:

There is no G-d in Heaven / And there is no Hell below / So says the great professor / Of all there is to know / But I've had the invitation / That a sinner can't refuse / And it's almost like salvation / It's almost like the blues

Robert Plant, on the other hand, responds to the break up of a long relationship in his new album Lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar. Again, this is a working out of the experience of loss and renewal, but with the edge that only the artist can bring to us. No wonder, then, that the Old Testament prophets were the ones to scratch away at the memories and imaginations of the people, using words that – in the words of Walter Brueggemann – “linger and explode”.

Anyway, this all comes on the back of seeing Caro Emerald live at the Leeds Arena a couple of weeks ago. The support act, Kris Berry, was lovely-but-bland and couldn't manage to hold the audience – it felt like the audience was trying to help her feel OK. Then Caro Emerald hit the stage with her eight or nine piece band and occupied the space with sheer force of musical personality. You couldn't take your eyes off her. Every song, every arrangement, coursed through your veins, lighting up the imagination and firing the bits of you that want to get up and dance even if to do so would have been unseemly. In my case, that is.

So, that is the soundtrack running through my mind while I begin a holiday from the relentlessness of establishing a new diocese in West Yorkshire and the Dales (and Barnsley and a slice of Lancashire and a bit of County Durham and North Yorkshire…).

(The thunderstorm stopped at 9pm allowing wifi to work…)

 

The first day of my sabbatical. Thirty books to start on – two months to read as much as possible. I am afraid there's going to be an awful lot of book stuff on this blog in the next few weeks. (Enjoying Lucy Hughes-Hallett's The Pike today.)

Then there's the closing of the January transfer window with Liverpool having bought nobody to strengthen an inadequately broad enough squad. Oh dear.

But, what has grabbed my attention is an article I picked up yesterday on the Die Zeit website. Written by Ulrich Greiner (publisher of Zeitliteratur magazine) and sparked by the announcement that novelist Henning Mankell has decided to record in print his 'journey with cancer', the piece is headed “Man sollte diskret sterben” – one should die discreetly. His point? This sort of description of suffering is essentially narcissistic.

Apparently, Mankell has decided to record his “fight against cancer” (a term commonly used, but essentially meaningless, and one that betrays a pile of assumptions) and to report on progress. He has said: “I want to describe exactly how it is,” and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has decided to publish it in instalments.

So what? After all, there are loads of examples of prominent people who feel the need to tell the world of their expereince of dying. Greiner argues that we live in an 'era of confessions' (im Zeitalter der Bekenntnisse) and that these are seen as a proof of courage.

However, Greiner thinks that filling bookcases with such stuff demonstrates the opposite of courage: courage would be evidenced by discretion. He goes on to assert that this pressure to confess is proof only that the once self-evident boundary between intimacy and publicity (privacy and openness) has now disappeared. If you must spill this stuff into the public sphere, then write a decent novel, he says. Otherwise, keep your sufferings to yourself – pouring it out in print is just narcissism and doesn't achieve anything useful.

Well, I sympathise with Greiner. The hungry media beast can't get enough of 'confessional' material. The publishing industry needs such stuff because people will buy it. Fair enough. But, Greiner has a point about self-referential narcissism: for whom is the account of one's own suffering or dying actually written? In order to help humanity address its mortality? Or as a form of fearful catharsis?

Clearly, the boundary between private and public, intimacy and publicity, has long since disappeared. Look at teenagers' outpourings on social media. Look at anyone's outpourings on social media, for that matter. Not everything should be open and public; some things in human lives and relationships should be kept private and intimate. To lose the distinction means losing something of human integrity. The mere fact that millions of people want to gorge on the self-disclosures (or snooped disclosures) of other people does not in and of itself justify it being done.

However, Greiner is perhaps missing one or two perspectives here. Perhaps the reason people want to read this stuff – and, therefore, sufferers want to write it – is simply that most of us do not find the mystery of mortality easy to live with. Coming to terms with suffering and dying – outside of the control we crave over our lives and resistant to our technological hubris – is not always easily handled in a culture that sees death as an enemy as opposed to a necessary part of life. How do we process this 'coming to terms with dying' in a culture that has lost its communal rituals and lacks a vocabulary for dealing with mortality? Perhaps we need stories and confessions and narratives that offer some incarnated processing of what internally we cannot shape.

Maybe I am missing the point too. I have never been afraid of death or dying and have never seen death as anything other than an integral part of what it means to live. I don't want to die, but I have no desire to 'fight' it. Christian faith is rooted in both the essential contingency of mortality – something God opts into at Christmas and does not exempt himself from – and the conviction that if God raised Christ from being truly dead, then there is hope.

I am really not bothered what happens to me after I die (there is possibly a PhD to be written in exploring the narcissism of individual conversion based on fear of hell). My hope is simply not in a formula or a guarantee, but in the person of the God who raised Christ. The rest is detail. And there is too much of life to enjoy and endure without being obsessed with the detail of personal interest.

Some will object to this. Fair enough – I can only tell it as it is. But, I can also say it is utterly liberating to be grasped by a gospel (good news) of life than one rooted in a fear of death. Christmas was about “God surprising earth with heaven”; Easter will demonstrate what it can mean to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. The journey from one to the other puts flesh and blood and character and relationships and challenges and choices onto the theology. And that is what our churches are – or should be – working through in their preaching and liturgies and conversations.

 

I cannot read the haunting lament of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas without hearing his voice from an old recording:

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

A gorgeous, warm, bright spring day brought out the tourists in droves yesterday – baring substantial amounts of unsunned flesh. Driving through the Dales, it looked and felt like summer was on its way (so, it’ll probably snow next week). The beauty and the nascent new life bursting from trees, flowers and hedgerows seemed incongruous, however, with what I was going on to do later in the afternoon.

The excellent and wonderful Marie Curie Cancer Care trust has moved its annual bereavement service in Bradford from October to March. At least this aligns the appearance of real daffodils with the symbol of the Marie Curie charity. Everyone in the congregation of a couple of hundred had two things in common: (a) they were bereaved in the last eighteen months and (b) they are mortal. The service creates space and a vocabulary for loss and grieving and thinking about our mortality – in a place that gently reminds us of it anyway. For over 700 years people have worshipped, lived and died in this place. On the way in to begin the service I noticed a memorial plaque on the cathedral wall which poignantly recorded the deaths of the three infant children of a bereft couple in the early nineteenth century. This cathedral has witnessed the living, suffering, celebrating and dying of generations of people like us.

Cutting through the potential verbiage to the heart of the matter, I tried to account for Christian hope in a way anyone could understand it. Based on Revelation 21 three things seemed pertinent:

1. Christian hope is rooted in the God who comes to us. We talk about us ‘going to heaven’, but it is the other way round. In the Genesis 3 narrative it is God who goes walking in the garden in the cool of the day asking ‘Adam, where are you?’ – the same searching question that confronts every human being. Adam and Eve do not seek him out; he seeks them out. God makes the first move. In the Incarnation it is the same – God comes among us. And the imagery of Revelation 21 tells the same story: the heavenly city comes down from heaven to earth, not vice versa.

2. The resurrection is key to Christian hope. Jesus did not spontaneously come back to life in some great act of resuscitation: as Paul notes, ‘God raised Christ from the dead’. And this points to…

3. … Christian hope is not located in a scenario or a formula or schedule of what happens when the body closes down. Christian hope is rooted in the person of God. That’s all. I turst and hope in God, not heaven or some expectation of what happens after death. I trust in the God who raised Christ from the dead – and the rest is detail that doesn’t need to bother us very much.

The old Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, put it like this:

God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So there is hope.

The great German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, put it like this:

God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

Which, of course, is the beginning of a conversation and not the final word.

So, Christopher Hitchens has died. I, for one, am sad to hear this.

Any death ends a world for those who are bereaved. And the brutality of this rupture has been brought home recently in the premature deaths – by various means – of people like Gary Speed, the young family in Pudsey, the victims of Liege. Death strips from our ‘normal’ life the veneer of self-sufficiency and confronts us with the pain of our mortality.

The odd thing about the death of Christopher Hitchens, however, is the repeated suggestion that he was in some way (and incontrovertibly) a ‘scourge’ of religious believers, trouncing by sheer intellectual sharpness the nonsense of religious belief. He wasn’t and isn’t a scourge in any sense at all. The difficulty for Christians like me (and theists in general) was that that he wasn’t ‘scourge’ enough. I don’t need to repeat the response he got from Professor Terry Eagleton (among others). Along with Richard Dawkins, Hitchens set up aunt sallies which are not only easy to knock down, but which theists might also wish to knock down. Caricatures of faith might be convenient, but they are not thereby credible.

But, that said, there was always something admirable about Hitchens’ willingness to provoke. Polemic – whether entirely rational or not – is at least interesting. It is a pity that such material will no longer come from his pen.

However, his death provokes thought not only about the impact of lifestyle choices on long-term health, but about mortality itself. We shall all die – that is the fundamental fact of life. Heidegger described human beings as ‘beings towards death’ – and he wasn’t really being miserable. Hitchens went along (as far as we can know) with Bertrand Russell’s conclusion that ‘We die, then we rot’. But, is that all there is to say?

Faith is often dismissed as a crutch on which those who cannot cope with life as it is can lean for emotional support. Apart from the fact that this (lazy) assumption rests on a further and un-argued for assumption that the non-faith world view is somehow neutral, it also fails to understand what faith is. Faith, for the Christian at least, is not some sort of credulous and escapist wishful thinking about a ‘system’ derived from fairies; rather, it is rooted in a person, a judgement and an experience. Put very briefly, a Christian is one who believes there is more to life than death, sees God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth whom death did not contain, commits himself or herself to living a life that transcends the mere satisfaction of personal needs or fulfilment, and, in the company of others who have had a similar experience of being grasped by God (including intellectually – see people like CS Lewis and GK Chesterton among others), live life to the full.

The beginning of being a Christian is coming to terms with – by facing and naming – death. We are mortal. We shall die. But, the sting of death is drawn by the conviction that death neither ends nor ridicules all that has gone before it. No escapism here.

The end is in the beginning. At Christmas we celebrate God coming among us as one of us. In being born, death became inevitable – and, with it, grief, loss, fear, and everything else that makes us alive. But, as the great Bruce Cockburn put it:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

Rome 1 008You can’t avoid thinking about time when in Rome. It’s not just the buildings and the history – it’s the time you have to wait for a bus, too. I waited over 40 minutes one day for a bus that is supposed to come every ten minutes.

But, you stand in the Pantheon and look at Raphael’s tomb and contemplate the fact that hundreds of years after he painted we are still seeing his work … and perusing his tomb. At the root of much of his art is a consciousness of mortality.

We shall all die. So, we are accountable for how we live in the light of that mortality. As Heidegger put it, we are ‘beings towards death’.

Rome 3 005Today part of our group has gone to the Papal Audience – in the rain. Benedict is an old man and will not be here for too much longer (in the grand scheme of things). I had hoped to visit the tomb of John Paul II, but didn’t have the time when at St Peter’s the other day. The photo to the left is a list in St Peter’s of all the Popes. We come and go and people will come and stare at what we left behind.

The Tiber flows on and time passes by. Just as well God has a broader perspective than we do. Otherwise we’d take ourselves too seriously.