This is the text of a commissioned article published in the excellent Yorkshire Post yesterday:

A quick story.

A little boy sat in his room trying to write his Christmas letter. He wrote: “Dear Jesus, I have been a really good boy this last year, so please can I have a bike for Christmas?” He knew this was a bit of a fib, so, he threw it in the bin and tried again: “Dear Jesus, I have tried really hard this year and have mostly been a good boy; so, please can I have a bike for Christmas?” Again, he knew this was pushing it a bit; so, in the bin it went, and then he wrote: “OK, Jesus, I haven’t been great this year, but I can try harder next year, … if you give me a bike for Christmas.” Then he threw it in the bin and gave up. “I need some fresh air,” he thought, and went out for a short walk before trying again. As he went around the corner, he glanced inside a garden and saw a large Nativity set near a neighbour’s front door. He checked no one was watching, nipped in, grabbed Mary, and hid her under his coat. Then he ran home, went up to his room, got out his pencil and paper and wrote: “If you wanna see your mother again, gimme the bike!”

At a time in our nation’s history when all the talk is of ‘deals’, it might be salutary to realise that deals are not everything. Christmas tells us that we can’t bargain with God and there are no deals to be done.

Does this sound a bit odd? Well, it should do. We now seem to live in a culture that values economics, money and trade above all else. Each time I ask (in the House of Lords, for instance) for whom the economy exists, I get blank looks. That the economy exists for the sake of people – and not vice versa – seems counter-cultural these days. Not everybody welcomes the question: what is the vision that Brexit is supposed to fulfil, and how do we quantify ‘the national interest’?

Christmas has something powerful to say to us as individuals – yes; but, it also challenges our social assumptions and rhetoric. Christmas says that people matter more than money, generosity more than the grasping of rights, love more than competition for advantage. Christmas whispers to an unsuspecting world that God comes into the ordinary and makes it extraordinary – not waiting until the world and our lives are all sorted, but coming among us as one of us and not open to bargaining, deal-making or competing.

This is why Christmas creeps up on us once a year, inviting us to put aside the truth claims of politicians, the power claims of those who have lost sight of dignity and social order, the pompous pretensions of those for whom status is everything. The baby of Bethlehem is born to parents whose relationship is socially questionable; born in obscurity in territory occupied by a military power; born to be hunted by a king and sent into exile for his own protection. A refugee as a toddler, he will lose his father by the age of 12, leave his family by 30, and be dead within two or three years.

And this is where the no-deals come in. The people who would respond to Jesus were those who knew they had no pretensions to uphold – that God comes to them anyway. And to those who assume that God is distant, standing remote from the muckiness of the world and keeping himself clean, Christmas says that God plunges into the heart of the real world – right into the places where the pain is most acute and life most bewildering or challenging. When I pray, this is a God who knows where I am and we are.

So, I will sing the carols of God’s free offering of himself in love to a complicated and sometimes brutal world. And I will still feel a little unease when the organ strikes up with Adeste Fideles and its glorious descants: I still think we should be singing “O come, all ye faithless”. For Christmas is the opening of God’s arms – and, therefore, of the arms of those who bear his name and claim faith in him – to a world that hasn’t asked for him, but longs for liberation and healing and redemption. No deals. No bargains. No competition. Just grace, mercy, generosity and the possibility of a new start and a different way.

Fantasy? Nonsense? Or a message that dares us to think again about who we want to be and how we want our society to be shaped?

Christmas can be sidelined into some religious compartment that we drag out once a year but keep tamed and away from real life. We can keep it as a remote and other-worldly fairy story … or we can dig deeper into the familiar story and ask what the God behind this story offers to people everywhere. For myself, I will consider again the response that Christmas – God surprising earth with heaven – invites from me: to follow the Jesus of the gospels, wherever this leads, whatever it costs, and however it challenges my assumptions about the way the world is.

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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.

 

This is the text of an article written for the Yorkshire Post about the meaning of Christmas:

When we say that someone is 'down to earth', we usually mean that they are straightforward, unpretentious, with no airs and graces. Their feet are planted on terra firma, and they cannot be accused of being above themselves (or anybody else, for that matter). Being 'down to earth', therefore, is a good thing – something we recognise by its absence in some people's language, behaviour or demeanour.

So, it should come as no surprise that Christmas is about as 'down to earth' as you can get. Christmas might be about many things, but it is above all about God not exempting himself from the realities of the world, but opting in to all the world can throw at him (and us). Christmas is fundamentally a celebration of God being down to earth.

Now, this will sound uncomfortable to some and inconvenient to others. After all, isn't God there to be worshipped and feared? Haven't we already got God taped – if not only in order to dismiss what we don't like about religion?

Well, Christmas is supposed to surprise us – something our familiarity with various popular presentations of the Nativity militates against. But, it is meant to break across our fixed views of the world and the way it is, opening our imagination to a new way of seeing God, the world and us. It is meant to subvert our expectations of how the world inevitably has to be, inviting us to look differently, see differently and live differently in the world as it is.

Go back to the original story. God doesn't explode on an unsuspecting planet at the place of most political significance and compel everybody to turn their eyes to the great event. Most people in Palestine have no idea what is going on. That is part of the irony – the surprising and subverting. And, when it comes to it, it is outsiders – the 'great unwashed' shepherds and pagan foreigners – who are first to have their eyes opened to the mystery born in obscurity in a remote and troublesome corner of the Roman Empire.

In other words, the first Christmas draws the 'wrong people' to Jesus. Not the pious, the prepared, the priests or the pretentious, but those who don't 'belong' and those who least expect to be included. Or, as I once put it (and got into huge trouble with the media for daring to do so), the first Christmas should have led to the singing of “O come, all ye faithless…”.

Now, our familiarisation with Christmas, the sentimentalising of our consumer culture and our commercialisation of the celebration, have removed the Jesus of Bethlehem from the real world to somewhere more containable (where we don't have to worry about him growing up into a politically troublesome adult). In doing so, we allow the story itself to become rootless in the real world. And this is problematic.

So, consider this. The baby of Bethlehem was born into a world in which life was very cheap and expectations very limited. This world was dominated by a military power that ordered every part of life and society and dealt brutally with those who challenged its hegemony. The land into which the baby was born was occupied and its people humiliated. Under threat of persecution and death, the baby and his family fled to another country, becoming refugees and asylum seekers in a land whose very name (Egypt) represented slavery, misery and hopelessness. Terrorist groups emerged from the hill country of the north from time to time, bringing death and destruction to those places where the Roman forces exercised their power.

It sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it? A world of insecurity and threat. Not a million miles from a world of ISIS, terrorism, fear and uncertainty.

Well, this baby would grow into the man who defied all power and denied all fear by inviting people to think again (or 'repentance' as it is sometimes known). What if there was to be a people who were not driven by fear, but drawn by hope? What if we could be down to earth, but not bound by earth? What if, while remaining rooted in and committed (body, mind and soul) to this world, we could be free to sit lightly to our status and dignity, our security and self-fulfilment, loving our neighbour as ourself and putting their interests before our own? What might this world look like? What would a society like this lead to?

This is basically what Christmas is all about. God doesn't wait for us to get our act together and sort out our integrity before coming to him with a plan. Rather, God takes the initiative, coming among us as one of us and, ultimately, opening his arms to us in an embrace that absorbs all that the world can throw at him, but without throwing it back.

And this is the point of getting to a church for a carol service. I love the aesthetics of candle light and familiar carols. But, what the church is actually doing – well or badly, but always fallibly – is to create a space, for an hour or two, during which we can be confronted afresh by the mystery of God's surprise – that even God is down to earth, right where we are.

Following the furore over the bishops' letter to the Prime Minister about refugees, I was asked to put pen to paper for the Yorkshire Post to explain why I agreed to be a signatory. The reason I agreed is that I had just spent the day meeting people who have been on the wrong end of war, displacement, humiliation and hopelessness – just like many of those escaping from the Iraq and Syria we have helped create. So, here is the article published this evening for tomorrow's paper.

I am not sure what the politicians and political commentators have been doing today? Still seething about the letter written by 84 bishops to the Prime Minister asking for a rethink on the numbers of refugees to be let into the UK? Still sitting behind screens being sarcastic about bishops and their big houses (which are actually their offices)? I have read today that some responses are becoming less hysterical now that the letter has actually been read.

Forgive me for being just a teensy bit touchy on this. I am in Sri Lanka visiting our link bishop of Colombo. The Church of England dioceses have links across the world: West Yorkshire and the Dales has close connections with Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Sweden (Skara), USA (Southwestern Virginia), Pakistan and Germany (Erfurt, though, obviously, this is not an Anglican link).

In other words, rather than simply pontificating about situations, we actually have grassroots connections with them. When asked why the bishops don't wade in on, say, the 100,000 killed in South Sudan, well … actually we have and we do. We also go to Sudan and see the impact of the conflicts in the South. It could be argued that we know what we are talking about.

So, back to the letter to the Prime Minister. If you are one of those seething about the well-meaning bishops getting it wrong again, have a look at this first:

First, the bishops agreed the letter to David Cameron some five weeks ago. It was kept private. We were promised a response. Is not five weeks quite a long time to wait, especially as we were told we would hear soon? (Funnily enough, a letter from the Home Office arrived on Tuesday.)

Secondly, we were clear that we are not against the government, but responsible for asking the moral questions. To be portrayed (by some people who should know better) as anti-Conservative is wrong, lazy and ridiculous. Every government of every shade thinks the church is against them. Labour ought we were right wing; the Tories think we are all lefties. We just have to get used to the knee-jerk responses that this defensiveness provokes.

The job of bishops is not to be popular or simply to go with the current, dominant flow – of culture or power – but to tell the truth, even if we might eventually be proved wrong in some things. The church cannot duck its prophetic vocation. Read the Bible and we are always getting into trouble with the powers that be – it goes with the territory.

Thirdly, many dioceses are now already looking at how we might support refugee families in our areas, including issues of housing. Some are further down the road than others.

Fourthly, comments about how the bishops should get their own house in order before “lecturing the rest of us” should be recognised for what they are. No one is “lecturing” anyone. It was a letter. Spot the difference? And it was a letter directed to a particular person, not “the rest of us” – unless the commentators themselves are identifying so closely with the government that you have to question the independence of their judgement.

The focus of this argument should be on the plight of refugees and the causes of their plight. Arguing about which bishops are targets is a mere distraction.

Today (Tuesday) I have moved from Kandy to Jaffna in Sri Lanka. We visited small rural communities and met people whose limbs have been blown off (or worse) during the thirty year civil war that ended in vile brutality only five years ago. One man with no left leg and a mangled right leg and foot cannot work and cannot support his family. An elderly woman has lost all her relatives in the carnage and now is totally alone. We went to an orphanage run by the Church of Ceylon where we met the inspirational priest and his wife who led a group of mentally ill women through the war zone to safety; they also brought several dozen orphaned girls. They were separated and only found each other again once the war ended. The warden of the orphanage has only one leg.

How many of the commentariat have actually got out from behind their screens to meet real people with real faces and real lives? Just asking. Because this is how the church lives, and it is how the bishops learn reality away form our small island.

Syria is a catastrophe. It is not numbers who are fleeing – it is people. And their torment will continue long after they have escaped the immediate horrors.

Much of our conversation here revolves around the civil war and questions of the church's role in reconciliation. It is funny how similar questions about the relationship between church and state keep arising – as well as bishops' prophetic responsibility to not keep quiet for fear of upsetting the powers.

I think our letter might have been too gentle and diplomatic, after all.

The languages debate continues. Following earlier discussions on this blog – especially in the light of recent press reports on a podcast I’d made – here is a piece commissioned by the Yorkshire Post. I’ll let it speak for itself.