Christmas Eve 2019, looking back from the ancient chancel of Ripon Cathedral towards the nave.

However, the interesting bit isn’t what you can see. Underneath my feet while taking the photo is the oldest stone-built place of Christian worship in England. Apparently. In the seventh century crypt you stand where St Cuthbert’s body lay en route to his burial in Durham.

So what? Just more old stuff – something Britain is full of?

Well, since that crypt was built in the 600s the world has seen quite a lot. The world has ended many times. The Norman invasion, plagues, the Black Death, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the English Civil War, the birth and death of an Empire, two world wars, and so on. People have lived their lives and died their deaths. They have wept with pain, been wracked by fear, and laughed at the absurdities of life.

We now live in times we consider to be unprecedented and fearful. But, the truth is that all times are fearful and, by definition, unprecedented. And after millions have lived their mortal lives, the cathedral still stands, the crypt bears witness to generations of chaotic people and sometimes-faithful communities. Still there. And so are we: still praying, still serving, still digging into the ancient wisdom of texts written by people who wrestled with the same existential questions as we do.

Old stuff gives us a sense of perspective. In the parish where I was a vicar from 1992-2000 – Rothley in Leicestershire – there is a Saxon cross in the churchyard. We drank wine out of an Elizabethan chalice. I baptised in a Norman font … and would look up at mediaeval windows and down at a Victorian floor. Hanging by the north door there was a wooden plaque which bore the inscribed names of all the vicars of Rothley going back to the eleventh century.

We are part of that continuum. One in which things change, but God seems not to. So, we do our best, try to be faithful in our generation, and hope to pass on to the next generations a world that will speak to them of faithfulness in unprecedented times. And speak to them of time.

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…)