23 March 2017
From The Chair of the Lincolnshire Methodist District
For the bereaved, injured and traumatised the world is now a very different place; our prayers go out to them.
Images from the tragic events on Westminster Bridge and in the grounds of the Palace of Westminster have seared themselves into all our memories.
As Christians, in our little corner of God’s world, we have a duty to respond as Christ would expect. Only love can defeat hate, only truth can overcome lies and only dialogue can inform the ignorance. We have to ensure that our hopes and dreams are not retained in the secrets of our prayers but fulfilled in our words and actions. It is for a time such as this that we are placed on this good Earth, to build bridges and make friends with people who express their faith in ways different to those that we were taught.
It is not true that Islam is satanic nor is it true that there is a Jewish conspiracy in our world; it is not true that God’s children are condemned to live and die in fear of each other, but are born to explore the complexity of diversity so that each might discover afresh the richness and mystery of our creator.
Having spoken and preached a number of times recently on an encounter Jesus had in Sychar, I am reminded that Jesus placed himself at a well where others found refreshment, notably a woman of a faith different to his own. The message is clear, we too, following his example, are to journey physically and spiritually to encounter those who might not necessarily journey toward us.
We must not let the extremists, whether they be religiously or politically motivated, undermine the values that make for a holistic society. All who seek the common good need to join hands and face this universal threat; in doing so we will never be defeated, Love will always win.
Surprises are the spice of life.
As with spice some surprises are too sharp to swallow but others can add flavour and excitement.
A birthday present or a gift at Christmas that takes us by surprise is usually very welcome.
When the gift is predictable it can be more than a little disappointing.
A good novel, or a creative piece of music, or an imaginative painting, contains a surprise or two.
A twist in the final chapter, the introduction of a key change, a little detail that only the observant can spot, these things can turn something half decent into something that is special.
Those that compiled the Gospel accounts knew what they were doing when they added surprises to their text; they knew that those twists would keep the reader alert.
Matthew’s account, the one that we are focussing on this year, is filled with surprises.
The surprises begin right at the beginning of the account with the genealogy of Jesus which includes some extraordinary characters whom you wouldn’t suspect of being ancestors of the Son of God.
Tamar, the Gentile, surprising for a book that claims Jesus to be the new Moses.
Rahab the Canaanite prostitute who spied against her people.
And so on.
To the reader that knew their Hebrew scriptures, which Matthew’s community clearly did, this was a very surprising list.
From the genealogy to Golgotha and the confession of the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, the first to publicly declare Jesus to be the Son of God, Matthew implies the tool of surprise to hook into the imagination of his readers.
Then there are the temptations in the wilderness.
One would expect the new Moses to spend time, as did the original Moses, in the wilderness.
What is surprising is the level of temptation that Jesus faces.
To the righteous reader how can this be so?
To the unrighteous reader, why doesn’t Jesus go with the quick fix, or the power, or the display that would prove once and for all his uniqueness?
It’s a twist alright.
Of course for many it is ok to recite the creed that includes ‘tempted in all points as we are’ but when that is graphically illustrated by a novelist and later a film producer to include the temptation of turning back from the course God would have him take and instead to marry Mary Magdalene, settle down and have kids, that is one twist too many.
But for me, the film Last Temptation, drove home the sacrifice Jesus made on my behalf.
I personally couldn’t think of how it’s even remotely possible to resist such a temptation, but resist he did.
In a church that is no longer surprised by the birth of the Son of God in a backwater,
or that the message didn’t get through to everyone (and still doesn’t),
or that the whole episode should end with him nailed to a cross,
such a creative addition to the story was sufficient to help convince me of the extraordinariness of Jesus.
So if Jesus and his actions took his contemporaries by surprise, how does Jesus take us further by surprise today?
The story has to be developed.
It cannot stay the same.
Just as the missionaries to Eskimos found their claim that Jesus was the bread of life meant nothing to them, so we today have to realise that some of the story no longer surprises nor attracts our colleagues at work, our neighbours in the street, or our friends at the bowls club.
If someone had have said to me thirty years ago as I took up my first appointment in circuit that I would preach in a mosque at Friday prayers during Ramadan I would have thought them crazy.
If someone had have said to me then that a rabbi would open up the meaning of scripture like none of my Christian teachers I would not have believed them.
If someone had have said to me then that I would end up doing any one of the hundred and one things I have done these past three decades I would have said they were deluded.
But the path of discipleship is one of great excitement and joy when the journey has surprises along the route.
We cannot settle for anything less than surprise.
Because if we do our faith is dormant and in mortal danger.
So today we look to how the mission of Jesus can be further expanded.
Reaching out to our own, in a comfortable unchallenging manner is not going to get us anywhere.
To be engaged with those outside our own is to be alive to surprise.
To be open and receptive to those who offer us a very different perspective on life and faith is to be a faithful and willing listener to the God that is trying to get through to us.
We may miss what God is saying if we do not give God the chance to communicate through all of his children.
Yesterday my friend David and I attended a conference in the morning and an art gallery in the afternoon.
The conference was for chaplains and professional practitioners in health care. It was an opportunity for the delegates to explore the links between spirituality and medical provision.
In the afternoon we visited the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.
For me God was as present in the gallery as he was in the conference.
That is not to disparage the conference in any way, far from it, I thought it was a wonderful conference touching on some very important issues and much will have been achieved by it.
But God could not be excluded from the gallery.
God was there in the labour undertaken by the artists as they conveyed meaning.
God was there in those attending from the 19-month old toddler rushing in between the legs of adults to the frail gentleman placing his walking stick against the wall before balancing himself on his weak legs to take a photo of a painting with his smart phone.
God was there in the joy of the residents of Hull as their city is visited and appreciated by those of us who haven’t been for many a year.
God will be in the week that you are about to experience.
Whatever it is that you will face,
highs or lows,
laughter or sorrow,
conversations or isolation
God will be with you and God will be within all you encounter and experience.
This is the message of Jesus in the wilderness,
the one who would go on to enthral crowds on hillsides,
be feted as he entered the city
and who would weep tears in the garden.
He was never forsaken.
And nor will you be.
19 February 2017
This unalterable fact,
a knowledge that cannot be unknown,
that one day we shall die.
And all that we do no longer
will no longer be done.
And all whom we love,
whom we cannot love beyond
will be cast out,
to wander on unknown,
through, as yet, an unknown world,
and wonder at its imperfections
and wither in time’s frightful passage.
Then alone they face and fight,
and fight the challenges they alone can fight.
Such a knowledge once known,
A dread-full, fact now known,
that cannot be shaken off
but haunts and holds
and close us off,
until our time,
has come and is
and is no more.
Such knowledge impacts all we may yet come to know,
all whom we may yet come to love,
an undercurrent to coming waves of time
Ever rolling and immersing the sands of life.
From suckling child to force-fed patient,
from first words to a sigh at the last
and in between lies all that –
while consciousness is real,
that inflicts its terrible paragraph
on chapters that charted growth,
and thwarted dreams.
This unalterable fact that one day
the dawn will not come,
the sun will not rise,
for night, that unconscious void,
will cast its impenetrable veil
across the light
that once gave us wonder
and as we wandered
in hope and love
a hoped for life
in all eternity.
2 February 2017
A Statement from the Revd Bruce Thompson, Chair of the Lincolnshire Methodist District
2 February 2017
It is becoming increasingly clear that many of the values that have underpinned Western democracies are facing their greatest challenge in decades.
Based on the Judaeo-Christian principles of hospitality to the stranger, providing refuge to the oppressed and respecting one another our nations have been havens in times of war, places where the vulnerable have been protected and where communities of diversity seen as an enrichment not a threat.
All these principles had become embedded in society through selfless sacrifice over many years. They are now in danger of being lost through fear as a consequence of lies and bigotry.
The recent electoral and referenda campaigns unleashed deeply-seated prejudices. They have permitted a depth of hatred to be expressed that before only emanated from the more extreme sections of society.
Deeply held convictions are held on both sides of the argument and we are in danger of fostering divisions and wounds that will take many years to heal. Therefore there has been no greater need than today to revisit those truths that have held communities and nations together in times of crisis.
As Christians we need to honour the teaching that reminds us that a fulfilled life comes through serving God above all others, through meeting our neighbour’s needs, through loving one another and through taking a stand against any injustice. The Church has always been at its most effective when it has been true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and when it has been a counter to populist agendas that bring chaos and suffering to so many; in short when it has been a Church of righteousness and resistance.
29 January 2017
We live in a world of fantasy.
For some time now we have been living in a world of fantasy.
From the early soaps Peyton Place and Crossroads, with the enduring Coronation Street of course and the myriad of other imaginary communities, our lives have become accustomed to living in a parallel universe where the final scene is a cliff hanger to keep our anxieties high till the next episode.
Then of course historical fiction has played its part. Such novels may be beautifully written and thoroughly researched, but they can only be an extension of the author’s imagination.
Films ‘based on actual events’ have merely added to the fact that fantasy has become more interesting than truth; and, in some cases, more believed than the original documentation and eye witnesses even.
Then along comes social media where everyone’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s.
In truth, of course, this is clearly not so.
My opinion on climate change is nowhere near as well informed as that of environmental scientists. Just as I wouldn’t expect an environmental scientist to be as well informed on biblical criticism as I am, so I would not expect my views on global warming to be treated equally to those of someone who has spent their adult lives studying the issue with all the statistics at their fingertips.
Social media has also enabled conspiracy theorists to promote their ill-founded claims in ways that appear to be well-researched and irrefutable.
On Friday we commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day. Despite the fact that gas chambers and ovens remain at Auschwitz the Holocaust deniers maintain that they never existed at all.
All of this is an acute danger to the world we have forged over decades, a world based on verifiable facts; a world that holds truth as the core element to an open and honest society, where respect for the experts and admiration for those who wrestle with the issues exist.
When Michael Gove dismissed truth during the Referendum last year by saying that we’d had enough of experts he was adding yet another slash to the fabric of a well-ordered society.
When claiming Trump’s inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s (please do me a favour) his senior advisor Kellyanne Conway suggested that there is such a thing as ‘alternative fact.’ Really? In my book there is no alternative to fact other than fiction.
So, we live in a world of fantasy and it’s a very slippery slope.
It means that few if any can ever be trusted again.
It means that lies can displace truth.
It means that all sorts of wrong can be committed without recourse.
At a Q and A shortly before the US Presidential election I was asked why it is that there are fewer people of faith in Britain than was once the case. I found myself replying that it’s not just religion that people have lost their faith in. People have also lost their faith in sport. So that when someone does extremely well in the Olympics we question whether they did so without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. People have also lost their faith in politics. A huge percentage of the population doesn’t trust Brussels, or Westminster, or the so-called ‘political elite’. In my response at the Q and A I went on to suggest that when people become disbelieving of, or angry at organisations that have evolved over many decades a chasm opens up into which steps those who would fill it for their own political ends. This happened in Italy, Germany and Russia in the 1920’s and 1930’s, dictatorships resulted and the outcome was catastrophe. I then went on to warn the young people of falling for the same mistake but that we were beginning to see the same possible outcome in the US with Trump heading towards the White House. This warning didn’t go down well with some people present and it reminded me that those who dare to speak truth to power are often an embarrassment to those who do not have the courage to stand up to injustice.
The problem for those of us who practice a religious faith is that we can so easily become ignored, disregarded, scoffed at in a so-called ‘post-truth world,’ where fantasy is preferred to fact, where lies are held on the same level as truths, where what was once the given no longer has claim upon society.
These are clearly dangerous days.
The world has been here before of course.
I have already mentioned the totalitarian states that inflicted so much damage across Europe in the twentieth century. But they were overcome, eventually.
I could mention Church and State in previous centuries who through controlling information and withholding knowledge helped keep the masses downtrodden and accepting of injustice.
The world has indeed been here before but the truth has a habit of winning through, albeit after a long, hard struggle and at great cost.
Which is why it is vital that all people of good will and common sense do not fall for the lies and rhetoric of the extremists across our world.
Kim Wilders, the far right leader in the Netherlands who is ahead in the polls has recently claimed Europe is facing a Patriotic Spring with his own nation’s election in March and the French Presidential election in May. All this could so easily be topped with the German election later in the year.
The claims of each far right party and politician has a common thread. Make our nation great again, take control of our borders, give the power to the people. We heard the same battle cry last summer in the referendum.
History warns us about the dangers of such self-centred, protectionist, short-termist views. But history also tells us that such dangers are overcome, as I have said, eventually.
As Christians we will, of course, look to Christ for inspiration. We were warned of false prophets and the teachings of Christ contain all we need to discern right from wrong.
The early church through John’s account of the gospel comes to believe that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
We can all experience real life, says the evangelist, an abundant life, if we know the Truth.
But we can only know the Truth if we follow the Way, that is practice hospitality, humility, generosity, grace and forgiveness.
The historical Jesus, according to the evangelist, may have debated with Pilate what truth was but it becomes clear to the believers that through the resurrection that which leads to death is overcome, not once but for all time.
The principalities, the powers, the perpetrators of evil acts do not win, for they cannot win in the long term.
The problem of course is the short to medium term.
This is a world that wants instant answers to questions, immediate solutions to problems and politicians seem unwilling to make sacrifices for anything beyond their term of office; which is why, incidentally, Putin has great advantage over our own elected leaders because they are in power for a wee while and he thinks he is going to be in the Kremlin for many years to come.
With this short-termist mindset, few are willing to commit to anything that cannot have identifiable results within their own lifetime. But that is what we must now do for the sake of future generations.
It’s like challenging those who say that we don’t need to change anything in a church because it will see me out.
What I am addressing now is something altogether greater than a few changes in the way we do things in church.
This is about taking a stand against the prejudices of our generation, for if we don’t then future generations will pay an even greater price. Our actions and inaction will be judged by those who come after us. If we fail to speak out now, if we remain silent in the face of this enormous threat, then history will judge us harshly and rightly so.
Therefore, I want to speak of an authentic Church in a world of fantasy.
To do so I have to be part of an authentic Church.
A Church which says it is not true that those of a different faith are a threat to me; but what is true is that all people are made in the image of God.
It is not true that those of a different sexual orientation should have fewer rights than me; what is true is that those who love one another know God and are loved by God.
It is not true that only those outside my own religion are the terrorists in this world; what is true is that we are complex beings with the capability of doing both good things and great harm.
It is not true that those who have made mistakes should always be punished forever; what is true is that those with contrite hearts should have the chance to be forgiven.
It is not true that the Church has a monopoly on truth; what is true is that the Church is limited to the abilities and willingness of its members and that those outside the Church have much to teach us within it.
It is not true that we should accept without scrutiny the orders of even a democratically elected government; what is true is that all people, organisations and governments are subject to the judgment of God.
So here we are. At the beginning of 2017. With much to do if we are to be the Church of righteousness and resistance, much to do if we are to be an authentic Church in a world of fantasy.
Personally, I have never been as confident in my call, so convinced as to what we should now do, as I am today.
These are challenging times, for sure. But they are times filled with opportunity and task.
To be the people God would have us be.
To stand tall in the face of oppression.
To be truthful in a plethora of lies.
And to be the disciples of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
26 January 2017
This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder 26 January 2017
The British Government has become the first in the world to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. It reads:
‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities’.
There has been a misconception amongst many as to exactly what constitutes as antisemitic speech or action in modern times and the IHRA definition goes a long way towards a fuller understanding. In an age that is sometimes described as ‘post-truth’ it is good to have greater clarity on what the late, renowned historian Robert Wistrich called ‘The Longest Hatred’, otherwise antisemites will continue to find increasingly imaginative ways to cover up their prejudices.
What has often helped to cloud understanding is the fact that hatred of Jews has taken on many forms over the centuries; once one form of prejudice has been addressed, though not altogether overcome it has to be said, another has tended to develop. Putting it simply, for much of the last two thousand years the hatred has been fuelled by those inept and arrogant theologies that have blamed Jews per se for the rejection and death of Jesus; examples of which can be found even in Christian pulpits today, including, in my hearing, at an ordination service last year.
Of course, a more liberal view of religious affiliation developed from the age of the Enlightenment, thus enabling Jews to take a much fuller role in society. But just a little while later, with the rise of the nation state, coupled with Darwinian views, one’s country of birth or indeed race became increasingly significant and it didn’t take long for Jew-hatred to become racially, rather than religiously, motivated. It was in 1879 that the German leftist Wilhelm Marr popularised the term ‘antisemitism’. Marr argued that the integration and assimilation of Jews into German society could never be successful and even those who had chosen to abandon their religion, or convert to Christianity, were to also be forever in conflict with the German volk. So, whilst the fact that religious prejudice against Jews had never really gone away, a new form of Jew-hatred developed that was based almost entirely on racial heritage. It was this form of hatred that culminated in the forest massacres and gas chambers of Nazi-occupied lands. It has to be noted, however, that the Holocaust or Shoah (Hebrew for catastrophe) was not unique; boycotts, ghettoes, the wearing of badges to single out Jews, expulsions and pogroms had all taken place before over many centuries. What was different in the 1940s was the unprecedented scale and industrialisation of the killing; it was nothing less than a serious attempt to exterminate an entire race, irrespective of whether the victims were practising Jews, secular or Christian.
After the liberation of the camps, almost unqualified horror at what had taken place kept a lid on Jew-hatred for a number of decades, but the lid was on a simmering pan. Post-war guilt at the failure to prevent the slaughter of European Jewry may have played a part in the establishing of the State of Israel but it was not long before Jew-hatred came to the boil again. Today antisemitism is on the rise. Over the years, following each conflict or outbreak of violence in Israel Palestine it has been possible to chart an increase in antisemitic incidents; once the violence abated the number of attacks returned to the previous level. However this has not been the case since the 2014 conflict with Hamas. The level has remained high and, indeed, at times has increased.
There was much admiration for ‘plucky little Israel’ over its first twenty years of its existence, as it held back five hostile neighbours collectively bent on ‘pushing Jews back into the sea’. It is understandable that many became anxious over the tightening of human rights in the occupied territories post ’67. But while there is legitimate concern at the destruction of ancient olive groves, the building of settlements and the erection of a security barrier, some expressions of concern have slipped into new forms of Jew-hatred, albeit masked by political campaigning for the rights of Palestinians. Many who have made this error have done so in all innocence believing that they were fulfilling the call to do justice.
So whilst neither Jew-hatred based on religious affiliation nor antisemitism (racial hatred of Jews) have completely left the scene, a new variant of the prejudice has manifested in the guise of anti-Zionism, Zionism being the belief that a Jewish nation should exist. This has led scholars including Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, to claim that Jew-hatred is a virus that mutates; in other words the prejudice that found expression in religious and racial forms now has a political form. The IHRA definition of antisemitism which the British Government has adapted rightly takes into account all three forms.
The IHRA website helpfully offers examples that serve as illustrations:
‘Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews ‘for why things go wrong’. It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.’
The Methodist Church has been clear on its abhorrence of antisemitism since at least 1943; part of a statement at the Conference of that year reads:
Anti-Semitism is utterly incompatible with the Christian doctrine of man (sic), and is a denial of the Gospel. Malicious gossip and irresponsible charges against Jews, no less than active persecution, are incompatible with Christian standards of behaviour. Accordingly, the Conference calls upon the Methodist people everywhere to resist attempts to rouse antagonism or prejudice against the Jewish people.’
The 1943 Conference representatives were meeting at a time when racial hatred of Jews was commonplace and unbeknown to them reaching its apocalyptic zenith across occupied Europe.
The 1999 report Called to Love and Praise understandably went much further on the theological issues, recognising both the complexity and sensitivity of the historic relationship between the Church and Jews. However some might feel that the report was not clear enough in distancing today’s Church from the supersessionist views of the past, beliefs that have seriously contributed to hostility between Christians and Jews.
Most recently the EDI Toolkit on the Methodist Church website has provided a more relevant definition of antisemitism:
‘Any belief, policy or action that discriminates against or incites hatred towards Jewish people, either by race or religion, or caricatures Jewish people and culture. This can include denying the right of Israel to exist, or to judge it by standards not applied to other nations.’
This most recent guidance by the Church is clear, unequivocal and wholly relevant to an age that is experiencing a prejudice that is often termed ‘the new antisemitism.’ It is insufficient to view antisemitism as racism for it is much more. It can find expression in, yes, religious prejudice and has done so for almost two thousand years. But in an age when both religious and ethnic diversity amongst the Jewish communities are vast we can only conclude that antisemitism has also taken on a very clear political prejudice. Daniel Goldhagen has written that its reach is unparalleled both historically and today while Lord Sacks has reminded us that throughout history hatred of Jews never ends with the Jews, but goes on to focus on other minorities.
Holocaust Memorial Day is an occasion to remember all those who suffered, or continue to suffer, as a consequence of the Nazi extermination programmes. It is also an opportunity to remember all who have fallen victim of regimes that engaged in genocidal acts over the decades since the Shoah. If we are to be serious about a commitment for it be ‘never again’ we have to revisit the past. But even that is insufficient. We have to continually reassess history and be on guard against the prejudices of our day however they manifest themselves.
 Wistrich Robert, The Longest Hatred, Methuen, 1991
 Wilhelm Marr, The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism, 1879
 Community Security Trust
 Today many scholars prefer to write the term ‘antisemitism’ without a capital letter as there is no such thing as ‘Semitism’.
 Supersessionism is the belief that the Christians have replaced Jews as the People of God.
 Daniel Goldhagen The Devil that Never Dies, the rise and threat of global antisemitism, Little Brown 2013
23 January 2017
Never was the truth more ridiculed than it is today, never the truthsayers more scoffed at.
It is possible to appreciate the sceptics when a truth is difficult to verify, or shatters conventional wisdom, say for example when Galileo presented his discovery. But when a fact, blatantly obvious to any rational mind, is treated as if it is a complete fabrication of reality we know that the rules of debate, or of even decent conversation, have gone out the window.
For sure any person’s perspective is limited to the level of information that is both available and absorbed. But when a shameless unwillingness to receive and process information becomes the norm, and blind prejudice is the favoured choice, then the ability to negotiate, reconcile, develop, or any of the other processes that have led to progress over the centuries, is diminished.
It is explained to us that we now live in an age of post-truth politics. The dangers we face in such an age are immense. The acquisition, conveyance and acceptance of truth are the core elements of a reasonable society; without them only chaos can reign.
In recent days as the argument over whose inauguration crowd was the biggest (please do me a favour), the phrase ‘alternative facts’ was used. The facts are the facts are the facts. There can be no alternative to fact except fiction, fantasy, falsehood, call it what you will. Basing an opinion, let alone a life, let alone a political argument or movement, on nothing other than lies leads to frustration, division and destruction. Any resistance formed against the purveyors of propaganda and prejudice will always be attacked by those whose dark lies have been exposed. They cannot do anything other; they live a lie and they will kill to keep their lie alive.
Those of good will and common sense, those who are humble enough to accept that their opinions are not all there is to know, and those who remain open to receive new truths based on verifiable evidence have as clear a purpose as anyone could have, and that is to challenge the drift towards populism and narrow-minded nationalism.
If ever authenticity were needed then it is today.
An authentic church does not accept that we should live in an unequal society. An authentic church does not accept that we should look after ourselves before we turn to our neighbour in need. An authentic church does not accept that we should hold on to beliefs no longer sustainable in the light of the evidence.
An authentic church practices hospitality and inclusivity. An authentic church effuses humility and openness. An authentic church grasps the moment, stands against the evils of the age and is willing to die for the sake of Truth.
The Chairs of the Lincolnshire Jewish Community, the Lincoln Islamic Association and the Lincolnshire Methodist District
Any year is full of surprises.
Sometimes those surprises are good, sometimes they are not so good.
2016 was no different.
12 months ago who’d have predicted that Leicester City would win the Premiership or that Donald Trump would become President of the United States.
Each of us could look back on the year that has passed with mixed emotions.
There may have been some very disappointing experiences for us in 2016 as well as times of great fulfilment.
There may have been some sadness and some joy.
There may be memories that we’d rather let go of and others we hope to cherish into the future.
Amongst those memories of 2016 that I will cherish was one Friday in March.
Some months beforehand I had accepted an invitation to address those who were to gather in Lincoln City Centre for an open air service on Good Friday.
At the time of the invitation no one could have known that just 72 hours before the service was scheduled to take place 3 suicide bombings in Brussels, 2 at the airport and one at a metro station, would take the lives of xxx and injure many more.
It was of course yet another senseless terrorist attack on innocent people.
It occurred to me that as a consequence of the Brussels bombings the Good Friday event at which I was to speak was to be all the more poignant.
As many will know, Good Friday is the day Christians commemorate the killing of Jesus by the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. As Christians we believe that this death was unique in that God had taken upon himself human death. Christians should know that we are all somehow complicit in the killing because of our failure to take on board all that God intends for us. But it wrongly came to be an excuse for some to blame one section of society for the death of Jesus, namely our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community.
Consequently over the centuries, right up until recent times in certain parts of Europe, those attending a Good Friday service would come out of their cathedral or church and attack Jewish homes and businesses .
As I prepared for the 2016 Good Friday service I formed the view that we should seek out our neighbours and friends in the Muslim community and pledge our solidarity with them as they attempt to come to terms with those who abuse Islam by killing in its name.
With the knowledge and consent of my good friend Tanweer a number of us from the Good Friday Service and indeed local synagogue walked on to the place where Friday prayers were held and where we were warmly and enthusiastically welcomed.
It was a great privilege for me to address the Muslim community of Lincoln on that occasion and share with my friends the fact that every religion has its fair share of extremists. Indeed only the day before Radavan Karadic had been sentenced to 32 years imprisonment for war crimes against Bosnian Muslims; it must not be forgotten that Radavan Karadic is a Serb Orthodox Christian.
On that Friday afternoon in March 2016 at the Muslim place of prayer we together agreed that all people of good will, irrespective of their particular religion or faith, must work together in spreading justice and peace.
Looking back, it seems to me that we will never overcome prejudice if we are not prepared to get to know those whom we discriminate against.
It is far more difficult to hate a known neighbour than a distant stranger.
As we journey into 2017, who knows what lies ahead.
There will be, for sure, many surprises, some surprises we won’t like and may even come to wish they’d never happened.
Other surprises could be deeply rewarding for us, especially those that occur when we break down barriers by getting to know someone from a very different background, country or faith.
Each of us have much to learn and only by being open to the stranger in our midst will our lives be truly fulfilling.
When I say that I want to wish you every blessing for the coming year I am convinced that I do so not only on behalf of the Christian Church leaders of Lincolnshire but also on behalf of all faith leaders across the county.
Whatever the language
11 December 2016
If only mortal flesh could keep silence
And ponder Presence in absent moments;
Or in clashing haste of complexity
To pause and play with possibility,
Thoughts, just fleeting thoughts, of infinity.
If only mortal flesh could keep silence
To dwell and linger on seeming distance;
The Mystery made real for here and known
A brief moment treasured when time has flown
And time for living no longer my own.
If only mortal flesh could keep silence
To let go of self and seek out Guidance,
Pause now on vastness and proximity
And live for the One who brought to me
ones who bring tears of joy and memory.
What happens when someone tells you a joke that you have heard many times before?
Do you just sit there grinning, trying to look expectant and then conjure up a laugh at the appropriate moment?
Any joke is spoilt, no matter how well told if you know the punchline – you try your best but it never quite works out and much of the initial fun is lost.
It’s the same with the cinema – if I go to the cinema and watch the trailers – what’s the point of going to see even a film that a trailer has whet my appetite when the trailer shows so much I know the story before I go on line to buy my ticket?
Or book reviews that give away the plot.
I prefer to watch a film that has been recommended to me without me knowing the whole story. I prefer to read a novel that I have no idea where it will end up.
The same difficulty is posed by our Christmas celebrations. We know the outcome in advance. We embark on the journey of Advent knowing that on 25 Dec we will be celebrating the birth.
Something is lost of the wonder and hope, the waiting and the frustration of the prophets and the people to whom they were addressing by the fact that we know the punch line.
So the wonder of Christmas is often lost on many adults.
Like the time we hear a joke for the umpteenth time, we grit our teeth, we try to appear expectant and we wait for the punchline, relieved when we get there so that we can let go of the frustration.
There is a sense in which the Gospel writers had the same battle.to wage.
They were writing for an audience that knew the story.
Their readers and hearers already knew the outcome.
What the writers sought to do was make sense of it all.
But so baffling, so unique was it that they had to find methods by which they could create the impact for another generation.
The Jesus event was pretty mind blowing for the eye witnesses, those who didn’t know how it would all turn out, but for those who had heard the earlier generation talk about these things, extraordinary though they were, something of the impact was lost each time they heard it.
So the Gospel writers had to devise methods by which they could encapsulate the Jesus event in such a way that future generations would be won over.
Each of them would draw on other traditions in order to do so.
Matthew would delve into Judaism’s ancient texts and consider how all the hopes of the Jews could be fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Like the people of Israel who had long reflected on their heritage of promise, hope, error, exile, return, for Matthew the life of Jesus was to follow the same pattern. The messiah was promised, in him the people find great hope, mistakes are made, he is cast into the exile of death and returns three days later as a new promise is made that one day he will return for ever and the promised kingdom will be established for ever.
Of course Matthew would also sow the seeds of contempt for centuries to come as the Church developed this theme to blame all Jews for the disbelief and actions of the authorities: expulsion in the Middle Ages, pogroms over later centuries, the Holocaust in the last century and the rise of modern-antisemitism have all resulted as a consequence of blaming the Jews for everything from the death of Jesus, to the plague, to the depression in the 30’s, 9/11 and even ISIS.
John, many years later than Matthew, would have no truck with the nativity stories, much of their impact was already dulled by then.
What John would do was seek to impact upon his readers by drawing on mysterious philosophy and cast Jesus less human and more divine. For John Jesus was the expression of a God present at the very beginning, the Word incarnate no less.
Over subsequent centuries new ways of capturing the mystery of Christ’s birth would be employed, through music and the arts, poetry and prose. The drama of church liturgy and the litany of street theatre would be developed to convey the message afresh.
Today many look less forward to the Christingle than they do a superstore’s TV advert, an attempt to tap into our emotional need for Christmas nostalgia.
You see, our knowledge of the punch line and our reluctance to work at the story’s telling has helped fuel a commercial scandal.
The desire to make every Christmas as, or more materially exciting, than the last has resulted in a spending spree that puts undue pressure on the cash-strapped and covers over the uniqueness of Christ’s birth in glitter and tinsel.
So what of us, we who light our anticipatory Advent candles that count down the weeks and seek at the last to sing Nowell with the angels?
How are we to find the impact of mystery, the truth of incarnation: of God made flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, DNA of our DNA?
There is a reason why Jesus said that children are close to the Kingdom.
Their memories have not yet been filled to the point that mystery gives way to knowledge.
But we adults so often allow knowledge built up over repetitious events with predictable outcomes to diminish our sense of awe and mystery.
Yet that awe and mystery could still be found even in the well-known – if only we would allow.
Once our memories of accumulated events and repetition seek to convince us that there is nothing special in the things that once excited us, be it a story, a relationship, or indeed Christmas, we have lost the thrill of life.
If it is true that Christ comes to bring us life in abundance then we must surely have to approach those repetitious events with a great deal of renewed anticipation, believing that this time round something is different, that maybe we have missed an important feature on the previous occasions.
This is where we have to learn that letting go is an essential part of Christian spirituality, to put behind you the temptation to think that this is no different than previous celebrations, or lay to rest the belief that all is routine, or open up to the possibility that this year, it will be different.
How? Because the truth is that things have changed from last year, my goodness have they changed: anger at the inequalities and division within society has increased; fear of what the future may hold has deepened; certain politicians have tapped into that anger and fear; and because people in their millions have believed that simplistic solutions to very complex matters are the way forward, we find ourselves in uncharted waters.
And it’s not just the world that has moved on, the Church across this nation is waking up to the threat that the society we took for granted for so long is facing.
If we are honest individuals our relationships have altered too, for better or worse. We have travelled through the highs and lows of the year and as a consequence we can never remain the same.
I have never felt clearer on what I must do as a disciple than I do today.
I have never been more confident of the incarnation being the way forward in this chaotic and uncertain age we have now entered.
So the possibility of a Christmas filled with renewed awe, magnetic mystery, and a joy that is truly beyond words is still very real for those who are willing to let the Divine spirit in:
Find in the carols a line you have missed before.
Find in a prayer something that rings true for today.
Find in a card an image that draws you in.
Find within the birth of God in human form the potential for new life in your own life.
And if it is that those I encounter have heard it all before then I’m happy for the joke to be on me. After all, the punchline may be the same – but at the end of the day- it’s the way you tell ’em!