This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

News, by definition, is unpredictable. But, I guess one thing none of us saw coming even a couple of weeks ago was the prospect of North and South Korea competing in the Winter Olympics under one flag. We seemed to have moved with astonishing speed from mutual nuking to cooperative skiing. So, what’s that all about?

I think it’s hard to read. Is this a case of two opponents pushed together by the erratic behaviour of the USA, leading erstwhile enemies to find in each other a greater security than in their apparent allies? Or is it merely a short-term expedient aimed at distracting energy, attention and resources from more dangerous political and military challenges and provoking a collective sigh of relief that might yet prove to be premature?

It’s hard to read. The new film about Winston Churchill, ‘Darkest Hour’, illustrates brilliantly the rather obvious fact that we always make decisions with little or no idea of their likely consequences … given that none of us actually knows the future. In Churchill’s case, do we keep the peace or go to war? Or will keeping the peace now simply make a later war even worse? Do we avoid the conflict or go through it?

Of course, it’s always easy with hindsight to spot the miscalculations and errors, where powerful desire for one thing blinds us to the reality before us. Prophets are not in plentiful supply, after all, are they?

Well, I guess that depends on what you think a prophet is. When the prophets of the Old Testament warned their people against entering short-term military and political alliances with the overbearing powerful empires of their day, they didn’t just dream up nightmare scenarios aimed at creating fear; rather, they studied and thought and wrestled with their imagination – that is, asking hard questions about the potential consequences of different choices. Being prophets, of course, they were ignored, and the short-term security they bought led later to longer-term subjugation and exile.

I think this applies not only at a national or political level, but also for us as individuals. When we feel insecure we reach for those solutions that offer fast relief, however romantic. Driven by fear, feeling that I am in a desert of uncertainty or insecurity, the temptation is to look for the quick way out. Against this reflex, however, Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama urges (in his book ‘Three Mile an Hour God’), that the thing to do in the desert is not to run away, but to slow down. Slowing down in our judgements means we become slower to make false connections or to attribute causality where it doesn’t belong. Ask any immigrant what it feels like to be blamed for all the supposed ills of the world.

I’ll be watching North and South Korea with intrigue – waiting to see what the flags of the future might tell us about the choices of today.

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Here is the English translation of the sermon I preached yesterday at the Closing Service of the Kirchentag in the Stadtpark in Hamburg.

SERMON for Closing Service, DEKT 34, Hamburg, 5 May 2013

(Draft English translation)

I have two very young grandchildren. The elder is called Ben and he will soon be three years old. It is very funny listening to him learning to speak English. His language ability – shaped by living in Liverpool where the accent is … er … ‘unique’ – means that he learns phrases quickly, but doesn’t always use them correctly. So, I am looking forward to what he makes of the phrase: “Your eyes are bigger than your tummy.” Like many kids of his age, he can eat for England… and he sometimes takes more than he needs, more than he can possibly eat. As he grows up he will learn.

Or will he?

How much is ‘enough’? How much – and of what – do I need to be satisfied? And is ‘being satisfied’ the same as being ‘happy’?

The prophet Micah was thinking about this many centuries before iPhones, designer jackets and sports cars. Banking crises and currency challenges lay far in the future, and yet his own society was struggling with hard choices about how to live and how to love together with people who aren’t just like me. Micah’s world sounds familiar, doesn’t it? He wrote in a context of economic revolution. Material prosperity in his time led to an individualistic materialism and an approach to religion as a means to achieving or fulfilling man desire – what we might call ‘self-fulfilment’. And this, in turn, had led to a crisis in the area of personal and social values in which, as usual, the poorest people suffered the most. Injustice, greed and false idols of self-protection characterised society and shaped political and economic direction. Religion was tamed, having lost its challenging edge – a challenge based on a vision of a different world.

So, what Micah has to say was not relevant only to Israel many centuries ago, but speaks to us now. Because what he addresses is not particular social or economic arrangements, but the human heart and mind – which, for all our technological progress, does not seem to change very much at all from one generation to the next. It seems we still want to be happy and fulfilled and satisfied, but perhaps without recognising that such happiness, fulfilment and satisfaction cannot exist for any individual – or single community – without reference to the happiness, fulfilment and satisfaction of what the Bible calls my ‘neighbour’.

We might also remark that this applies to our political obsession with ‘security’. I cannot be secure, if my security simply negates the security of my neighbour. I cannot think about security in isolation from the needs of those who live alongside me. And it is this that places a question mark over the effectiveness of dividing walls, whether they be those dismantled in Berlin or those being constructed in the Land of the Holy One.

However, Micah is less concerned about establishing political programmes at this point than imagining a vision. He calls people who have lost their way and forgotten their story (as children of the God who created the cosmos and all that is in it – including the poor, the foreigners and those who are ‘different’) not to take hold of a vision ‘out there’, but to be grasped by a vision that transforms the way they see God, the world and themselves.

It is as if Micah says to his fearful people: “The old ways of seeing and being haven’t worked have they? Do you feel more secure now – happier in your skin? Or dare you see that your vision is tired and dull, that all you hoped and worked for now lies around you like the ruins of a once glorious city? Like Damascus or Baghdad or Aleppo?

A popular comedy series in NDR takes place in a bistro. In a famous line, the owner says, „That’s just how it is…“ – thus is the world. But the Bible subverts our understanding of reality and invites us – no, challenges us – to see God, the world and ourselves differently. The world does not have to be the way it is!

One day the famous Italian artist Michelangelo was seen rolling a huge stone down a hill. He had to use all his strength to manoeuvre the great rock in the right direction. Someone saw him and and asked what he was doing: after all, it is just a big rock. Michelangelo replied that he was in a hurry because there was an angel in the rock, waiting for the artist to reveal him.

Michelangelo could see what normal people couldn’t even imagine. And this short story illustrates the challenging vocation of people who want to look out through God’s eyes. Do we simply see what is before our eyes, or do we see the world around us differently?

Micah invites us to think differently, to see God and the world differently, and to be fired by a vision of a different world. A world in which we can be satisfied with ‘enough’ and in which our neighbours can be satisfied without us having to be afraid. The images he uses in 4:4-5 of his prophecy are deliberate: there will be no terror or fear because you will be satisfied with your own tree and not need to capture your neighbour’s tree when you don’t need it. After all, you can only sit under one tree at a time, can’t you?

This vision assumes that individuals and communities, fired by a different vision, will only take what they need and will deny themselves what they do not need. They will question economic models that worship at the altar of infinite economic growth – as if they are never any consequences of such growth. And they will never be content while the growth of their fig tree comes only at the expense of – or as a threat to – their neighbour’s fig tree.

Micah paints a picture of how and what the world might become – an image that goes beyond mere argument and worms ist way into our imagination as an image of hope and promise. It is as if he gently plays a melody that slowly develops into an ‚ear worm’ of hope and longing in the soul of a lost people.

This vision radiates peace; the song resonates with love and generosity that drive out fear. According to this vision everyone – regardless of which language they speak or which culture they espouse – can live with their neighbours in security and without fear. The God of Israel takes fear away and creates a new world full of new potential for human flourishing and the common good.

And this vision calls the people of God back to their original vocation: to live in the world in such a way that all people recognise in them the face of God.

Micah challenges us today to be inspired by a vision that fires our imagination, colours our memory and from which we cannot escape. Michelangelo saw the finished sculpture; he simply had to work at the stone until the angel concealed within it revealed itself. He saw deeper, he could recognise the potential, and so turned his energy and strength to creating the beauty that others could not yet conceive.

We are called to see as Michelangelo did – to recognise God’s face in the world and to reveal hope to the world. The Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn captures Micah’s call when he sings: „You gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight”.

As much as you need. Only as much as you need. Perhaps my grandson might learn after all that when he has what he needs, then he has enough.

Oh well, it’s done. I preached this morning to 130,000 people in the sunshine at the Stadtpark in Hamburg. The Closing Service is always impressive – 5,500 scouts, 4,000 in the brass band, bread and wine distributed in less than twenty minutes – but to be part of it was both a once-in-a-lifetime privilege and a complete eye-opener.

I had to edit out a third of the original text. I owe everything to excellent and kind German friends such as Silke & Christoph Römhild, Joachim Lenz and Corinna Dahlgrün, who make sure I don’t sound stupid – or, at least, if I do, it has nothing to do with the language.

Here is the text:

34. Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag Hamburg 2013 : Schlussgottesdienst

Soviel du brauchst (Micha 4.4-5)

Alle Menschen aus Israel und den Völkern werden unter ihrem eigenen Weinstock und unter ihrem Feigenbaum sitzen – niemand wird mehr Terror verbreiten. Denn das Wort ADONAJS, mächtig über Himmelsheere, wirkt. Ja, alle Völker handeln im Namen ihrer Gottheiten, wir handeln im Namen ADONAJS, unseres Gottes, jetzt schon – und in der Zukunft.

Ich habe zwei Enkelkinder, die noch ganz klein sind. Der ältere von ihnen heißt Ben, er wird bald drei Jahre alt. Er wächst in Liverpool auf, wo der Dialekt – ähm… einzigartig ist. Ben hat ein besonderes Sprachvermögen für Sprichwörter, er lernt sie schnell, aber er benutzt sie nicht immer richtig. Ich bin sehr gespannt, was er aus dem Sprichwort „Deine Augen sind größer als dein Magen“ machen wird. So wie viele Kinder seines Alters kann er essen wie ein Scheunendrescher – und manchmal nimmt er mehr als er braucht, mehr als er überhaupt essen kann, mehr als genug. Aber das wird er noch lernen, während er größer wird.

Das wird er doch, oder?

Wie viel ist “genug”? Wie viel – und wovon – brauche ich, um zufrieden zu sein? Und ist „zufrieden sein“ das gleiche wie „glücklich sein“?

Der Prophet Micha dachte über diese Dinge nach, lange bevor es iPhones, Designerjacken und Sportwagen gab. Banken- und Währungskrise lagen noch weit in der Zukunft und doch: Michas Gesellschaft rang mit den schwierigen Fragen, wie man leben und lieben sollte mit Menschen, die einfach nicht so waren, wie man sie gern hätte. Michas Welt und seine Fragen kommen uns bekannt vor, oder? Er schrieb im Kontext einer wirtschaftlichen Revolution. Materieller Wohlstand führte zu seiner Zeit zu einem individualistischen Materialismus. Religion wurde als ein Mittel angesehen, die Wünsche und Sehnsüchte der Menschen zu erfüllen – was man auch Selbstverwirklichung nennen könnte. Das wiederum hatte zu einer Krise der ethischen und sozialen Werte geführt, wobei, wie in solchen Fällen üblich, die Ärmsten am meisten leiden mussten. Die Religion war gezähmt, sie hatte ihre Schärfe verloren – die Schärfe, die daraus resultiert, dass man eine andere Welt für möglich hält.

Was Micha zu sagen hat, war also nicht nur für Israel von Bedeutung, sondern es spricht heute zu uns. Denn was er anspricht, sind nicht nur ganz spezielle soziale oder wirtschaftliche Verhältnisse, sondern das Herz und der Verstand des Menschen – und beides scheint sich, ungeachtet all unseres technologischen Fortschrittes, nicht so besonders zu verändern von einer Generation zur nächsten. Es sieht so aus, als wollten wir heute immer noch glücklich und erfüllt und zufrieden sein. Allerdings erkennen wir dabei (immer noch) nicht, dass es solches Glück, solche Erfüllung und Zufriedenheit nicht für Einzelne – oder einzelne Gemeinschaften – geben kann, ohne Rücksicht auf das Glück, die Erfüllung und Zufriedenheit dessen, den die Bibel meinen „Nächsten“ nennt.

Man könnte hinzufügen, dass dies auch für unsere politische Besessenheit mit Sicherheitsfragen gilt. Ich werde niemals sicher sein, wenn meine Sicherheit die Sicherheit meines Nächsten verneint. Ich kann nicht über Sicherheit nachdenken, ohne die Bedürfnisse meiner Nachbarn in Betracht zu ziehen. Und deswegen steht ein großes Fragezeichen über den Sicherheitsanlagen und Mauern dieser Welt, sei es die niedergerissene Mauer in Berlin, seien es die, die im Heiligen Land errichtet werden.

Aber Micha geht es weniger um die Errichtung eines politischen Programmes als vielmehr um eine Vision. Die Menschen seiner Zeit hatten ihren Weg verlassen, sie hatten sich verlaufen und ihre Geschichte vergessen – ihre Geschichte als Kinder Gottes, der das Universum geschaffen hat und alles, was darin ist, einschließlich der Armen, der Ausländer und derjenigen, die „anders“ sind. Micha rief sie auf, nicht nur eine Vision „da draußen“ zu ergreifen, sondern sich ergreifen zu lassen von einer Vision, die sie verändert und die Weise, wie sie Gott, die Welt und sich selbst sehen.

Es ist, als ob Micha zu seinem ängstlichen Volk sagt: „Die alte Art und Weise zu sehen und zu sein hat nicht funktioniert, oder? Fühlt ihr euch jetzt sicherer – oder glücklicher? Wagt es doch euch einzugestehen, dass eure Sichtweise müde und matt ist, und dass alles worauf ihr gehofft und wofür ihr gearbeitet habt, um euch herum in Schutt und Asche liegt wie die Ruinen einer einstmals glorreichen Stadt. Wie Damaskus oder Bagdad oder Aleppo…“

Eine beliebte Comedy-Serie im Norddeutschen Rundfunk spielt in einem Schlemmerbistro. Ein geflügelter Satz von Bistrobesitzerin Stefanie lautet „Es is‘ ja wie es is‘….“ So ist die Welt eben. Aber die Bibel untergräbt unser Verständnis der Wirklichkeit. Sie fordert uns heraus, Gott, die Welt und uns anders anzusehen. Die Welt muss nicht so sein, wie sie jetzt ist!

Eines Tages rollte der berühmte Künstler Michelangelo einen riesigen Felsbrocken einen Abhang hinunter. Er musste seine ganze Kraft aufbieten, um den Stein in die richtige Richtung zu manövrieren. Jemand sah ihn dabei, blieb stehen und fragte, was er da tun würde, schließlich sei es doch bloß ein riesiger Stein. Michelangelo erwiderte, dass er es eilig hätte, denn in dem Stein würde sich ein Engel befinden, der nur darauf warte, dass Michelangelo ihn heraushole.

Michelangelo konnte sehen, was normale Menschen sich überhaupt nicht vorstellen konnten. Und diese kurze Geschichte illustriert die herausfordernde Berufung der Menschen, die durch Gottes Augen hinausschauen möchten. Sehen wir nur das, was uns vor Augen steht, oder schauen wir die Welt um uns herum anders an?

Micha lädt uns ein, anders zu denken, Gott und die Welt anders zu sehen und uns anfeuern zu lassen von einer Vision einer anderen Welt. Eine Welt, in der wir uns genügen lassen mit dem, was wir haben und in der unsere Nächsten zufrieden sein können, ohne dass wir Angst haben müssen. Die Bilder, die er in Kapitel 4, Verse 4 bis 5 entwirft, sind wohlüberlegt: Es wird keinen Terror und keine Angst geben, weil ihr mit eurem eigenen Baum zufrieden sein werdet und den Baum deines Nächsten nicht erobern müsst, weil ihr ihn nicht braucht. Schließlich kann man immer nur unter einem Baum gleichzeitig sitzen, oder?

Micha malt ein Bild davon, wie und was die Welt werden könnte – ein Bild, das weit über bloße Argumentation hinausgeht, und sich als ein Bild der Hoffnung und der Verheißung in der Phantasie einnistet. Es ist, als ob er leise eine Melodie spielt, die sich im Geist eines verlorenen Volkes langsam zu einem Ohrwurm der Hoffnung und Sehnsucht entwickelt.

Diese Vision strahlt Frieden aus; das Lied klingt nach einer Liebe und Freizügigkeit, die die Angst verdrängt oder ersetzt. Der Gott Israels nimmt die Angst und schafft eine neue Welt voller neuer Möglichkeiten für das Aufblühen und das Gemeinwohl aller Völker.

Und diese Vision ruft das Volk Gottes zu seiner ursprünglichen Berufung zurück: so in der Welt zu leben, dass alle Menschen in diesem Volk das Gesicht Gottes erkennen können.

Micha fordert uns auch heute heraus, durch eine Vision inspiriert zu werden, die unsere Phantasie anregt, unser Gedächtnis verfolgt, und aus der wir nicht entkommen können. Michelangelo hatte die fertige Skulptur vor Augen; er musste einfach den Stein behauen, bis der Engel sich zeigen würde, der darin steckte. Er sah tiefer, er konnte das Mögliche deutlich erkennen, und so wandte er seine ganze Kraft und Energie darauf, um eine Schönheit zu erschaffen, die anderen zu diesem Zeitpunkt noch verborgen war.

Wir sind dazu berufen, wie Michelangelo zu schauen, Gottes Gesicht in der Welt zu erkennen, und der Welt diese Hoffnung zu enthüllen. Der kanadische Musiker Bruce Cockburn fasst die Forderung Michas zusammen, wenn er singt: “Du musst die Dunkelheit treten, bis sie Tageslicht blutet” (“You gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight”).

Soviel du brauchst. Nur soviel du brauchst. Vielleicht lernt auch mein Enkel irgendwann: Wenn er hat, so viel er braucht, dann hat er genug.

Two days in and three books down.

 
I haven’t the first idea what an algorithm looks like or what it does or how it does it. It’s something mathematical and that finishes it for me. But Robert Harris‘s The Fear Index takes an interesting look at the sort of thing that went wrong in the financial and banking sectors: hubristic gamblers ceding too much to computers on the grounds that they can do the sums quicker. The moral questions come thick and fast.
 

Julian Barnes has written a beautiful novella in The Sense of an Ending. Apart from the narrative itself, which kept me intrigued until the final page, the writing is wonderful. The idea of someone having to re-write their history in the light of information that arises later in life about events that happened when younger is a familiar one to anyone with a pulse. But Barnes ruminates on mortality, relationships, loss and regret. And there is a poignancy running through the narrative that captures the common experience of thinking that life should be better than it usually is:

Just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (p.105)

 
Discuss.
 
John Bell needs no introduction. For many people his name is synonymous with the Iona Community. HIn addition to his prolific output of music and hymnody, he broadcasts on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He is never boring – he uses words as if each one matters and finds the language to engage as well as inform. Rooted deeply in the language and content of the Bible, he brings to his speaking and writing a prophetic, reasoned passion that demands an equally biblical response. His second volume of ‘thoughts’ and essays is entitled All That Matters and cannot be read without some response.

 
One taste reflects back onto the questions raised by Harris and touches on Barnes’ sense of mortality:

The prophet is someone who reads into the present state of society and discerns two things: the consequence of present actions in advance of a crisis, and an alternative reality which is worth striving for. (p.55)

 
A fourth book, which I am reading a bit at a time, is David Crystal‘s wonderfully informative and entertaining The Story of English in 100 Words. Number 7 is ‘Mead’ and in Old English you could call someone who had drunk too much of it ‘medu-werig’ (mead-weary). From Barnes I learned the word ‘lucubrations’ (look it up – I had to!), but I can see I’m going to get far more use out of ‘medu-werig’.

Earlier this year I led a group visit to Israel and posted reflections on a number of elements.

One that still haunts me was the couple of hours we spent being propagandised at the so-called City of David. You can read my thoughts and detect my discomfort in this and other subsequent posts.

Ahdaf Soueif does a comprehensively better and more incisive job in today’s Guardian. It makes for painful reading and will no doubt enrage those who think criticism of Israel amounts to criticism of God.

I still struggle to understand the incomprehension of people who quote the prophets’ cry for justice while kicking helpless people out of their homes and off their land for questionable archaeological reasons.

Croydon is often thought of as a modern (i.e. post-war) town. The plethora of new building in the post-war years has served to hide some of the glories of the place and obscure a fascinating history.

Addington PalaceCroydon used to be the home of Archbishops of Canterbury. What is now the Old Palace School was where Cranmer had his library while writing the Book of Common Prayer. In those days you could sail from the Old Palace down the River Wandle to the Thames and along to Lambeth Palace. A couple of miles away Addington Palace (built in the 1770s) was the country home of the Archbishops from 1807 – bought by an Act of Parliament and financed by the sale of the Old Palace, it being “in so low and unwholesome a situation”.  Six archbishops lived at Addington Palace; five of them are buried in St Mary’s churchyard. The Palace was sold in 1898.

I was at St Mary’s, Addington, this morning. I always find it a little unnerving to be presiding at Communion while standing next to the tomb of a dead Archbishop of Canterbury. Facing the congregation, I looked to the right and read the inscription on the tomb of Archbishop William Howley (1766–1848) – I’d never heard of him before and I know nothing about him. What I noticed was that he died on 11 February 1848 – and that got me thinking about ‘time’ again, especially in the light of today’s great crises (tomorrow will bring something else to preoccupy us).

Communist-manifestoHowley died ten days before the publication by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the Manifest der Kommunistische Partei – the Communist Manifesto. It was the year of revolutions in Europe, with the earthquake of the French Revolution reverberating across national boundaries. There were epidemics (cholera in New York, for example) and ferments among groups that were eager for political and economic change. The Enlightenment project was working its way through the psyche of European societies, challenging the status quo and received ways of understanding the world.

So, just as Howley was dying – and probably thinking the whole world order was collapsing in front of his eyes anyway – the world was moving on. Howley never saw (and probably could not have imagined) the world that would develop after his demise: the Communist revolution in Russia, two World Wars, the beginning and end of European colonialism, the explosion of technology, etc. Locked into the possibilities of his own world and his own experience, he would have needed a good eschatology to keep his faith going in the wake of the threats to the world order going on around him.

I wonder if this sense of perspective is needed now? We always think that what happens in the world now is the most important and the ultimate reality. But, the truth is that whatever happens now, life will continue and will develop in the light of what has gone before. Leaving aside for a moment the ecological crisis and the nuclear threat (!) – which do have the potential to bring an ultimate end to things – the banking crises and political crises of today will be the topics of historical discussion and curiosity of our great-grandchildren’s generation. The seriousness with which we take some matters now will probably look rather curious in 100 years time. How we ever allowed the fantasies of the late 20th/early 21st century banking and debt cultures to develop will be a source of incredulity – especislly while half the world starved. Capitalism might one day look like a blip in the world’s economic history – as transient as the USSR and the Marxism-Leninism that seemed so powerful for so many decades.

This makes me look back to the Old Testament prophets. While things were looking good (politically, economically, militarily and religiously), no one would listen to the warnings of the prophets that God would not be taken for granted and security would be shaken if change did not come soon. The prophets had the insight to spot the medium to long-term consequences of political alliances and social injustices, but their warnings (rooted in a long-term view and a long-term perspective) were not heeded by people who could not see beyond the ‘today’ and their own immediate interests.

William-HowleyWe cannot predict what the world will look like for a our great-grandchildren. But we can be sure that they will read our story and our choices with more than simple curiosity – because the challenges they will face will derive from the decisions we have made and the challenges we have ducked.

I almost wish I hadn’t noticed the tomb of Archbishop William Howley.