‘Since coming to the UK, I have not been discriminated against as a foreigner, nor as a Jew, but as a woman yes.’

Dr Agnes Kaposi is 88 and lives in London. She survived both the Holocaust and the Stalinist tyranny of her native Hungary, and after the defeated 1956 revolution came to the UK. She and rose to the top of her profession of engineering, a field that had been the domain of men. To meet with her is to encounter some of the horrors of the 20th century. She carries with her grace and poise plus a sharp intellect that demands your concentration, not that you would ever get bored with the wealth of information, experience and extraordinary stories that she is able to convey.

I first met Agnes a little over a year ago at Limmud, the annual Jewish arts, history, religious and cultural festival.  She held her audience spellbound, with them wanting more than the hour and a half allotted to her; indeed, there is far more to tell than could ever be packed into any single presentation, as I was later to discover. Immediately after the session, it was my deepest honour to have lunch with Agnes, who showed no sign of wanting to ease up. It was clear to me then that this remarkable woman, who had only been sharing her experiences of her time in the ghetto, concentration camp and communist tyranny for just a few years, had insights that are vital for a fuller appreciation of what took place and why.

A few weeks ago, when I asked Agnes if she would mind if I were to interview her for an article, she had no hesitation. The decades of silence had ended and her aspiration now is for many to know and learn the lessons from her past. She has clearly exchanged her tremendous strength and tenacity that enabled her to survive the Holocaust and her unflinching ambition to be the best she could be in her chosen profession for her new goal: to inspire her audience to mutual respect and cooperation, against hatred and discrimination.

‘I was born in 1932 in Debrecen, a Hungarian city near the Romanian border. I was not yet two when a pro-Nazi government came to power. Because of his political views, my brilliant father, a classicist and mathematician, lost his job. Hoping to find employment in the capital Budapest, he and my mother moved away from Debrecen. I developed a stammer, probably brought on by the trauma of being left behind.’ 

Life was hard for the Jews of the country. Hungary established a discriminatory law against its Jews as early as 1920. A succession of 40 ever more oppressive laws followed, depriving the Jewish population of civil rights. Agnes does not shy away from discussing the causes. There was a long history of antisemitism in the country, fuelled further by the extraordinary level of influence members of the Jewish community had in Hungary in the decades before the war. ‘Statistics show that only 5% of the Hungarian population was Jewish, but Jews represented a third or more of all the professions: the sciences, medicine, engineering, journalism, the theatre and the law. The imbalance was a problem for the country, but barring well-qualified Jews from practicing their skills, and excluding Jewish children and young people from education, should not have been the answer.

The family was poor, the men– Agnes’ father and her young uncles – were unemployed. ‘Anti-Jewish laws prevented them from working in their professions of law, medicine, banking and engineering.’ Agnes, being the only child in the whole extended family until she was nine, believes her uncles doted on her, inspired and educated her. They taught her from an early age about Roman law and astronomy, heating and drainage, the human nervous system, doing sums and keeping accounts. It was probably her favourite Uncle Istvan, a gifted, Paris-educated civil engineer, who first spotted the natural talent Agnes had for engineering. Being a Jew, Istvan could not work legally, but he would be called upon to work secretly when there was a particularly difficult design task to be undertaken, or the authorities were in a rush. ‘But he always had time for me. He would spend hours with me playing mathematical games. He would allow me to make up little calculations for his work, write the figures on his beautiful drawings, and tell the rest of the family that I had contributed to his latest design. To this day, there are buildings standing in the heart of Budapest that he worked on during the 1930s. One of the projects on which he was compelled to work was a monument to Prime Minister Gömbös, a Nazi sympathiser. Ironically the monument was blown up by Jewish partisans during the war’.

The outbreak of the war presented the Hungarian authorities with another Jewish problem. Whilst non-Jewish Hungarian men were dying in their thousands on the battlefield fighting Hitler’s war against the Russians, Jews were not trusted to carry arms. Here was the solution: Jews aged 17 to 70 were conscripted, and most were sent to the front, not to fight, but to die, many at the hands of their fellow countrymen. ‘One of my uncles had been a reservist officer before the war. He was initially called up as an officer, but was soon dismissed, only to be conscripted later, put in a Jewish battalion without uniform or boots, even in the harshest Russian winters. Many Jews contracted typhus. 700 sufferers were crammed into a wooden structure claimed to be a hospital in Doroshich, a Ukranian village. The hut was set ablaze and any of the patients that sought to escape the inferno were shot by their Hungarian guards; Istvan was one of them.’ This particular incident causes her voice to go quiet and her head slowly to hang in deep sadness. The tragedy of loss remains very real.

‘I was not yet at school when I first realised that my family and I were treated differently to others. I noticed posters on advertisement columns, cartoons and slogans. I can still remember the phrases and the images. I can also recall posters urging people to join the Arrow Cross, the far-right party that would eventually come to power in Hungary and be responsible for killing the Jews and the Roma. The posters suggested that the Arrow Cross would make the country fairer to the poor. My father told me that these claims were a vicious lie: the Arrow Cross were not supporting the poor and targeting the rich, but urging people to hate and murder those who were ‘different’: the Jews and the Roma. It made me wonder about the children whose fathers didn’t explain to them that the Arrow Cross was lying, whether they would believe the posters and want to kill my family and me? At around that time children, who once played with me, stopped doing so. This was my first taste of antisemitism. It would get worse, far worse of course.’

Agnes started school in September 1939, a few days after the outbreak of the war. She found school easy, invariably finishing top of her class. She still has her school and university reports in her archives. However, school was not a happy experience. The school day started with a roll call at 8am, after which non-Catholics, known as ‘other religionists,’ had to stand in a cold, unheated corridor for a whole hour whilst the priest gave religious instruction to the Catholic children in a heated classroom. A curtain was drawn over a small window on the door so that the ‘other religionists’ could not see what was going on inside. Agnes recalls her fear, a sense of exclusion and given the impression that she did not belong.

Agnes has a class photo of her last year in junior school. The teacher in charge was devoted to Hitler, and was convinced that Jews were sub-human. And yet, here was Agnes in her class, a Jew, meeting the school’s expectations in full. This teacher’s was a typically Hungarian solution for the time: cruelty towards the child.

Schoolgirl Agnes spent her summers with her Grandmother in her beloved Debrecen, the only happy times of her childhood. In her book Agnes describes her grandmother as the sun of her life. ‘She was tiny, 4 feet 8 inches, a bundle of energy, her skills and foresight the key to our family’s later survival of the camps.’ It becomes clear that Agnes owes much to her Grandmother, including many of her own characteristics. ‘She was brought up in the country, never went to school, but was naturally intelligent and a perfectionist. Her standards were fantastically high, in general conduct, in personal hygiene, in her belief in fairness, and especially in upholding the dignity of the family even in the cruellest times.’

 What became a matter of heartache for Agnes was the growing awareness of lack of support from the Protestants of Debrecen towards the Jewish community. ‘Hungary was a Catholic country. Over centuries, Protestants had been fiercely discriminated against by the Catholic Church. The city of Debrecen was an island of Protestantism. I thought that its people, who themselves had experienced persecution, would exercise solidarity with Jews, another group similarly treated. I was proven wrong. On mass, Jews found no sympathy whatsoever from the people of Debrecen. To this day, I still expect those who find themselves discriminated against to stick up for others who are facing prejudice, and still to this day I am pained and disappointed when they don’t.’  Things might have turned out differently for Debrecen’s Jews had the Protestant Bishop Baltazár Dezsô not died in 1936. Baltazár fiercely opposed any form of antisemitism. Agnes can remember her family speaking of him with admiration and respect.

Times grew more and more difficult for the family. The men were in the army, some already reported dead. When the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, Agnes, now aged 11, together with her parents, left Budapest and returned to Debrecen, where the women and children of the family had already assembled. Statistics later showed that this might have been a bad move: half the Jewish population of Budapest managed to survive, while the percentage was much lower for those in the provinces. Hungary’s provincial Jews made up a third of the victims of Auschwitz.

Agnes’s book recounts her experience during the short period in the Debrecen ghetto. During this time, she became the only girl ever to attend Debrecen’s Jewish boys’ grammar school where standards were exceptionally high: teachers were distinguished academics dismissed from their university posts. In 1944 the school was closed down by the Arrow Cross, never to reopen. 

‘Clearing’ the country’s ghettos started in mid-May. In the next 56 days, all but 15,000 of Hungary’s provincial Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Almost miraculously, Agnes and her family were ‘lucky’: they were among the 15,000. Their train, already half-way to Auschwitz, was diverted to Austria. Agnes describes the horror of the 5-day journey in a cattle truck with 87 others, without food, water or sanitation, at the height of the summer. She writes of her life in the concentration camps, working as a child labourer in Austrian agricultural and armament camps until the arrival of the Soviet army ended their war. In all, 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

After the war came life in secondary school and university in tight grip of Stalinist tyranny. Agnes describes the dashed hope and disappointment of the 1956 revolution for the country, but for her it was good fortune: it offered her and her husband John the first chance to escape from their native Hungary. Agnes provides a highly detailed account of the flight over the minefields of the border and their journey across Europe. The last hurdle proved to be a typical case of catch 22: she and her husband needed a work permit to enter Britain – the country of their dreams –, but could only get employment if they presented themselves in Britain for an interview. At last, good luck and the kindness of a stranger provided the solution, and Agnes and John, happy owners of work permits both, sailed across the channel, arriving in Folkstone on 27th January 1957. Decades later the day was designated Holocaust Memorial Day.    

The account Agnes provides is detailed. Those years were filled with remarkable and horrific events, too many to recount in an article of this size, just as the presentation Agnes gave at Limmud the day I met her, was all too brief for those of us privileged to be there.

The love Agnes had for her Uncle Istvan, her drive and natural ability, and the vagaries of the communist regime meant that Agnes graduated as an engineer in Hungary, typically with highest honours. She studied for her PhD years later, while working full time in British industry and academia, and eventually become only the third woman elected Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK. She helped break the ‘glass ceiling’ of her chosen profession for other women to follow in her steps. She only have up her work in as researcher, consultant and educator when her husband fell terminally ill, and became his full-time carer. Since then, she has devoted her time to work as an educator, addressing groups of all ages and all religions in this country and abroad, seeking to inspire her audience to mutual respect and cooperation, against hatred and discrimination. That is the message of her book ‘Yellow Star-Red Star’, published at the beginning of 2020 (i2i Publishing). The book contains chapter-by-chapter comments and illustrations by the distinguished historian Dr László Csősz, lending authenticity to Agnes’ narrative.

I asked Agnes whether her family, many of whom were murdered in the Holocaust, were religious. ‘No, not at all. We were Jews but only through birth. We did not celebrate the festivals; we did not practise the religion in any way. We were targeted for being born as we were. Eyebrows would have been raised had someone wanted to marry a non-Jew; but they would have also been raised if someone wanted to marry an orthodox Jew. We believed in socialism. We believed in fairness, social justice and being kind to one another. Music and culture were important to us. My Father was taught Biblical Hebrew yes, but by a Catholic priest at a Piarist school, not by a rabbi!  I am often asked whether my faith was strengthened or weakened by my experiences in the Holocaust. I didn’t have any faith to grow or lose. Survival was so marginal there was no time for the spiritual. I was always looking at the ground to ensure I didn’t slip because I was wearing size 9 clogs made of wood and papier-mâché, far too big for my childish feet. I had a shovel and a rake on my shoulder and climbed up and down mountainsides, and had a never-ending, gnawing hunger for a year. There was no time for anything other than trying to survive the day. There was constant anxiety about what would happen next moment. The behaviour of my father and grandmother, two exceptional human beings, set the example, and saving the two toddlers of the family served as inspiration. The behaviour of the non-religious was no worse than that of the religious and the behaviour of the religious no better. In the camps, only those who worked were given food, and one had to be at least 14 years old to work. So I lied about my age to earn an extra food ration for the family, I told them I was 14 and not 11. Given a chance, I stole food for our toddlers. Did I do wrong? I try to forgive the perpetrators, I even work on forgiveness, but I cannot forget.’    

1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

There are key incidents recorded in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures that highlight a seismic shift in the way things are to be thereafter.

Cain murders Abel – this marks the shift towards a more agrarian lifestyle.

Abraham is to have sacrificed Isaac – this is the moment when animal sacrifice is preferred to human sacrifice as the perceived way of appeasing God.

Here, there is an emphasis on the shift from the priestly household of Eli to prophecy.

It all hinges on the ability to see what is going on in the world and to hear what God wants by way of response.

Eli’s eyesight is failing.  He cannot see as well as he once did.

This also indicates the priest’s own failures to see and act on the injustices of his household. We are told earlier that Eli’s sons had treated the offerings of the LORD with contempt (2.17).  The issue is not that Eli had himself committed grave sins; it is the fact that he had been unwilling to address the corruption amongst his own.

It’s not only his eyesight that is failing, so too is his hearing – he can’t hear God calling out in the night.

He is spiritually blind and deaf.

It is almost as if God gives up on him and seeks out someone who is able to hear and see.

Of course, it takes Samuel a while to recognise who exactly is calling him; but when he does, he becomes a trustworthy prophet of the LORD (3.19).

One can’t help but notice the similarities of how the temple priesthood is transferred to the priesthood of Christ in Luke’s account of the encounter Simeon had with the infant Jesus. A closer study of the vocabulary used by Luke leads us to suspect that his adoption of key phrases from the Samuel/Eli incident are more than coincidence. Luke is clearly stating that as with previous radical transitions, so we now experience one in Christ.

We are once again on the cusp of change.

In a few days’ time, there will be a handover of power from one administration in Washington to another.  How far the influence of the two camps will continue to reach is another matter for another time. What is clear is that the US stands at a precipice, which way it jumps is yet to be revealed.

Across the world, the pandemic is wreaking havoc with people’s lives, with the global economy, with the ways in which we encounter one another, and with our core beliefs and religious practices.

Those who lived during the seismic shifts of the past, those to which we have already referred – a more agrarian lifestyle, from human to animal sacrifice, from priesthood to prophecy, the coming of Christ – almost certainly won’t have noticed the consequences of such changes at the time, so gradual were they.

Similarly, in later events – the invention of the printing press, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution – those who lived at such times would have probably known chaos and uncertainty, fear and anxiety, but not the full outcome.  Over the course of history, it has taken time for the impact of radical changes to be seen for what they were. Like Eli with failing eyesight and hearing, it has often been left to a later generation to spot and embrace the changes.

All this altered in the twentieth century; for as the centuries had worn on, the consequences of socio-political, philosophical and theological changes were beginning to be realised much swifter.

At the time of the Reformation, what had previously taken a century to achieve was accomplished in ten years thanks to the circulation of rapidly produced printed material.  Because of the invention of radio and the presentation of moving images, what had once taken a decade to undertake could now be attained in a year or even less.

24-hour satellite news and social media now make that speed of change almost instantaneous.

Fears can be instilled across a nation within seconds of an attempted insurrection at the heart of Government.

But so too hope. Hope too can be nurtured in seconds.

Well-chosen words, the highlighting of an unwillingness to believe the lies or yield to injustice, can be the catalysts necessary for a more positive outcome. And this can be achieved much quicker than before.

The pandemic is the nightmare we never thought we would experience. However, it is here, it is real.  We cannot change that fact.  What we can change is our response to it. It is in our power to choose kindness over hostility, justice over complicity, and grace over retribution. And thanks to modern communication we can see the impact on others and even the outcome in our time.

What we can change is whether we are willing to see and hear again the words of God.

What we can change is ourselves.

A far better US president than the one about to be forced out of office following a fair election, once said that you can be the change the world needs.

The world you occupy – your home, maybe a family, a neighbourhood, a church – is the world you can change by being yourself that change.

Far from Woodstock

12 January 2021

Flickering for a while,

flowers of Woodstock, iridescent their spell,

weaving and swaying

to the rhythm of life’s fullest bloom.

Under a relentless waxing and waning

of the nearest star

they wilt and fade.

Burnt petals of bliss blown and part

by cold winters

of disparagement, deception and despair.

Untainted dreams,

fleetingly fostered and fanned to a flame,

lost, distressed, splintered,

shattered with the inexorable

passage of time.

The once shimmering lens of nature’s children,

turned to a memory’s kaleidoscope,

twisted and tormented,

tortured by realities’ trial. 

Wave after wave, lapped over the remnant of Woodstock’s dust,

crept up the Capitol steps

with flags that fluttered on sunlit days

brandished in threat, violence and revolt.

Dream again, nation of the Dream,

dream of recovered days, and better times;

of life and belief enhanced by the true faith,

of liberty and justice encompassing all,

of truth and betterment,

of the Divine dream that knows no lie,

no self-serving bigotry.

Open those arms again

that once embraced a child of vision;

release the love that extends beyond those boundaries

set by human hands

and narrowed minds.

Grow bold again

and believe in the supremacy of good.

©Bruce Thompson

There are important lessons for us to learn regarding the events in the United States. What we are witnessing may not be the death of democracy, but we may want to know if the illness is terminal.

Significant sections of the Christian Church in the US are vocal, and active, supporters of Trump and his politics; they must bear some of the responsibility for the division, unrest and anarchy now evident to the world.  They have chosen the wrong side of justice and liberty; they are far from what God expects of us.

What we, the Church in the UK, must now do, is not simply pray for the situation on the opposite side of the Atlantic, but reflect on our own context.  In recent years, we have seen minorities demonised, we have witnessed a dismissal of basic and obvious truths, and we have grown used to blame unjustly laid elsewhere. We have seen the right wing press call our independent judiciary ‘traitors of the people’, a term coined by Stalin. We have seen a Government deliberately prorogue Parliament in order to get their agenda through. We have become familiar with increasing poverty, hungry children and overlooked communities.

The sight of an armed mob, incited by a sitting President, storming the Capitol Building, the ‘citadel of liberty’ as President-Elect Biden has described it, is disturbing, though not at all surprising. We have seen a steady drip of lies coming from the US Administration over the past four years.  This began with what many thought was a petty argument over numbers at the inauguration through to a blatant undermining of the democratic process following the election.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us, as Christians, to maintain the ethics of our faith. It is important that we hold to account those whom we have elected to office. It is our moral duty, our responsibility to society to ensure that we do all we can to prevent the gradual erosion of standards in a democracy.  Failure to do is too dark to envisage fully.

Whenever our politicians appear to be threatening the fabric that has held our nations together, whenever trust is broken, or any policies or actions clearly contradict the well-honed beliefs of the Christian Church forged through scripture, tradition and reason, it is time to take a stand. We need to remind our elected representatives that the Christian Church has a place in socio-political discourse. We must not do, as the German Churches tended to do in the 1930s, leave it to the politicians. Nor must we do as many in the churches of the US have done in allowing populist policies to dictate the agenda. Jesus tells us to be as wise as serpents as well as gentle as doves. We must exercise discernment and seek courage in the face of the threats to our social contract.

A Lincolnshire MP recently dismissed my concerns about the road of travel he and many of his colleagues are taking in a somewhat unyielding manner.  With great confidence, he informed me that ‘the link between biblical teaching and modern jurisprudence is tenuous, as is the relationship with the word of God.’  He and I have a meeting arranged in the near future, during which I will invite him to unpack this.

I have a collection of sermons written by ministers who resisted the Nazis.  They make interesting reading, they are brave and inspirational; if only more had done so, but sadly they did not.  They stand out because they were so few.

On 16 November 1938, in a sermon following Kristallnacht (the pogrom that swept across Germany that killed many Jews, destroyed synagogues, homes and businesses), Pastor Julius von Jan preached on the text ‘O land, land, land: hear the word of the LORD’ (Jeremiah 22.29).  In it, he said that ‘if some have to keep silent and others do not want to speak, then certainly we truly have every reason to observe a day of repentance, a day of mourning over our sins and the sins of the nation’. Following the sermon 500 Nazi thugs descended on him, he was severely beaten, and dragged to the City Hall, where he was tried and thrown into jail.[i]

It is highly doubtful that our own resistance will demand of us such sacrifice, but the effect of not speaking out when confronted with politicians behaving as they have done of late, could be very serious indeed.  


[i] Stroud, Dean G., Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow, Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich. Erdmans, 2013.

A Pastoral Message

30 December 2020

A Pastoral Statement for the Lincolnshire Methodist District 30th December 2020

For most of us, this is the biggest collective battle in our lifetime. Only those who lived through the Second World War will have known anything near the crisis the world is facing today. However, for Christians, there is an additional fight that has to be waged, which is almost without precedent; that is the struggle to ensure the Church remains effective throughout the coming months and beyond the pandemic.

We might think that the Church in this country in March 2020 was already in a far weaker position than our predecessor was at the beginning of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20; I am not so sure. The outbreak that cost 50 million lives worldwide came on the back of the most destructive war known in history. The Church was reeling from the loss of so many young men, not just through death in the trenches but the trauma of veterans and loss of faith of both men and women, young and old alike. Many ministers and priests had stood in pulpits and outside recruiting offices encouraging men to enlist; it was their ‘Christian duty’ to do so. Pacifist clergy who supported conscientious objectors paid a huge price for doing so, ostracised by their congregants and hounded from their posts. By 1918, the ordeal of the ‘Great War’, the catastrophic number killed, the limbless men on the streets and a generation of women condemned to remaining single, brought into question the Church’s stance prior to and during the cataclysmic conflict. Faith in God was also in short supply, if it had survived at all, for many who had previously taken it as a given. The decline of the Church in England, that had begun around fifty years previously, therefore took another serious hit just as the pandemic swept in. Sure, the numbers were not as low as they were at the beginning of 2020, but we must not kid ourselves into thinking that the Church has not fought back from a position of weakness before.

The time has come for us to rise to the challenge again. Our back is against the wall. Our finances have taken a hit. Even more significantly, the restrictions and fears of being together in worship have shaken the confidence to which we may have been clinging. But when we are weak God provides a strength beyond human capacity.

We can learn from our past, as is always the case. Previously taught theology had to be revisited in the wake of the Somme. Where was God in the losses? On which side was God? How could the ministers reach the masses again? People wanted consolation, comfort and hope, not high fluted expositions from pompous priests. Ministers therefore sought to speak in a more accessible manner again. A new spirituality began to develop. The ladies’ sewing circles, that had knitted socks for the boys at the front, continued but they were now for widows and spinsters listening to homilies and instruction without judgment in dogmatic way, which had been such a feature of the previous decades.

The pandemic that followed the First World War drove these reforms even further. A frivolity across many sections of society also arose, live for the day and forget the consequences that would arise tomorrow. The roaring twenties also challenged the Church. They were not only a result of the war; they were also a response to the pandemic. These are just a few of the features of a century ago from which we can learn in the coming months and years.

As 2021 gets underway, much of the Lincolnshire Methodist District has entered Tier 4. The day before the announcement was made I took a walk into Lincoln city centre to chat to independent shop owners. It was a sad and sorry experience. People are understandably worried. However, there was an inspiring resilience evident too. I took heart from those who said that we would get through this, we will be different, the world cannot but be changed, but we will get through it. There was regret for those who had lost their jobs already, especially those in the big stores that had gone into liquidation, household names now lost from the High Street. There was also an appeal to avoid those big online suppliers that paid pennies in tax, if anything at all. Support local business was the mantra.

We can find a way through this crisis that will make us stronger as individuals and more resourceful as communities. It is going to be tough, there is no denying it. It has already been tough. We have lost too many people. Too many are on increasingly longer waiting lists for treatment. Too many are suffering mental health issues because of the pandemic and some of the uncertainties surrounding the guidance.

But we can do this. It is amazing how God equips the faithful to take on things that we would not have entertained before. Divergent opinions need to be put to one side. We must unite across differences of view, culture and creed. Our neighbours are our neighbours whoever they are and whatever their stories. We are called to love them as if they were our own family, and when many of our families are at a distance, out of reach as it were, maybe this is where our immediate affection must rest, in the hope that others elsewhere are taking into their hearts our loved ones too.

The arguments against those whose decisions we might mistrust may have to be put on hold for another day. That is not to say that we will ignore our opposition or concerns, we will come back to them and some will be held to account, that is what living in a democracy is all about. But for now, we need to look out for one another, hold out a metaphorical hand to those in need, and listen out for the silent cries.

God is with us, as the President and Vice President of Conference remind us, quoting from the dying words of John Wesley. God is with us, Emmanuel as we have just recognised and celebrated. Because God has come to us in flesh and blood, so we too may reveal the Divine to others, Christ-like love in our hearts, Christ-like compassion in our eyes, and Christ-like commitment in our service.

Every blessing for the days ahead, stay safe, stay well, and be confident in the God whose Spirit strengthens us in our weakness.

Bruce

Having heard the Christmas carol ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ over recent weeks, some of us may now be wondering if the bleakness might extend beyond mid-winter, even into spring.

There is no getting away from it; it has been a tough year, for many, devastating, and our hearts go out to them.

However, in all of this fear and anxiety there remains for some a resilient hope and an increasing number of shafts of light.

Rolling out the vaccine must surely have been amongst the best news of the last months; and there may have been other things in our lives that brought us some cheer amongst the gloom of 2020. In addition, what we may have regarded as the simple things in life have now become something to savour. Indeed, those for whom some had little consideration before have now become our national heroes.

The world has always been turned on its head during periods of major calamity, how the world comes out of this crisis will be down to us. Previous pandemics, and do not be misled by those who claim this one to be unprecedented, it is not, previous pandemics have led to the creation of some of the greatest works of art, poetry, prose and spiritual writing. That is not to underestimate the accompanying distressing impact.

Even the dating of Christmas is down to the world of nature turning a corner. There is no documentary evidence for the date of birth, no certificate lodged in the Bethlehem Registry office indicating, name, date and place of birth, parents details and address. 25th December is a 1 in 365 chance of being the actual date of birth for Jesus. The feast date was chosen by the Christian Church of the 4th century to coincide with the winter solstice of the Roman world. We now know they were a few days out, as the winter solstice is actually 21st December. However, there were two reasons for choosing the date: one, to replace the pagan festivals that had grown up around the solstice; and two, to celebrate the fact that the hours of daylight had reached their lowest number, and from now on, the days would begin to grow longer again. Likewise, for the Christian, the birth of the Christ-child, heralds a turning point, the old orders of darkness had been overcome and light was breaking in. 

In the coming days, weeks, and months, I invite each of you to consider this year as a turning point for our lives, communities and world: light a candle in the heart of someone near to you.  They don’t have to be a family member, they may be a neighbour, or someone you work with, or someone you bump into on a dog walk. Say hello, wish them well, and encourage them to stay safe. There is enough darkness in our world; we need to counter it by lighting candles in the lives of as many people as we can.

Every blessing on the paths you tread this coming year.

Christmas Eve, 2020

26 December 2020

The Fisher King rests awhile,

looking, listening, waiting,

ready to descend with a flash.

The waters are restless,

weaving, waving and lapping,

gently receding from the lakeside edge.

The breeze rustles through the remaining leaves,

oaks, long from fresh green,

now golden and crisp,

hardened against the bitter wind.

The path is deep and well worn,

spewed by overnight gloom,

trod by pilgrim and walker,

longing for easier times,

restless for better signs.

Oh how the Fisher King thrills,

sweeping across the scene,

leaving but a memory and diminishing reflection;

a moment, brief in time,

but there can be no taking away this eternal circumstance.

© Bruce Thompson, Christmas 2020

Shortly after dawn on Christmas Eve, my friend spotted a kingfisher whilst we were on our daily dog walk. We stood watching it for quite some time before it flew off. Later, shortly before midnight, I sat in the car park at the veterinary hospital waiting for news of my dog who was not feeling well. It was there that I reflected on the coming of the Christ Child. I recalled the thrill we had had earlier in the day when we had seen the kingfisher. I considered that the baby born in Bethlehem would grow into an adult who would invite his followers to become ‘fishers of men’. The Fisher King was born in my imagination. Waiting and observing, while the world seemed awash in turmoil, the Spirit of God moved not only across the waters at creation but also through the forest of time and faced the hurricanes of evil. The Children of God had journeyed through difficult challenges before and now they were doing so once again. Yet, the long anticipated coming had been brief, thrilling, but gone too soon. Nevertheless, nothing, absolutely nothing nor anyone, could take away the impact that forever changed our world.

Christmas Address 2020

26 December 2020

There are many reasons why I am glad to have been born when I was. Being a teenager in the 1970s was one of them, not least because it was the heyday of Christmas pop songs. Amongst them of course was Greg Lake, I believe in Father Christmas released in 1975.

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin birth.

Greg Lake captured the sadness of hopes dashed, of dreams unrealised, and of a Christmas that didn’t match the cards and TV adverts.

2020 has been a year of many broken promises. To be told in March that we would see the back of Covid by May was just one. It is not a boast to say that I shivered when I first heard that said, to my ears it sounded very much like the claim at the outbreak of the First World War, ‘it will be all over by Christmas’, sending hundreds of thousands to the recruiting offices, lest they miss out on the ‘action’.

The war was not over by Christmas 1914, Covid was not over by May, and, sadly, it is still very much with us.

In addition, the most recent ‘guarantee’, made just a week ago, of a family Christmas over a five-day period, came to nothing.

As well as the familiar secular songs trying to cheer the nation at the checkouts are those Carols, often written in the Victorian years, which evoke Christmases past. Snow rarely falls on snow, snow on snow, but the sentiments strike a real chord.

In the bleak midwinter, the poem from which these words are drawn may actually make us wonder how long the bleakness of this pandemic will continue; long past midwinter, that we now know is for sure.

There are good reasons for the Early Church choosing 25th December to celebrate the Saviour’s birth. Believing it to be the shortest day, the Romans held a festival of light on that day. From then on the days would get longer and the nights shorter. It made sense then for the Christians to replace it with a new festival on that day. The only problem was that the Romans were a few days out; the Winter solstice is of course four days earlier on the 21st.  Nevertheless, the Church elected to continue celebrating the birth of true Light, the Light that dispels all darkness, on 25th December. The birth of Jesus could have been on any one of the other 364 days in the year, we will never know.

However, the symbolism is helpful. The date reminds us that the birth of Christ changes things forever. We have reached the darkest time of the year, from now on it will get lighter; life, the world, can never be the same again.

If the promises of politicians, the romance of poets, and depictions of impossibly pretty snowy village scenes on Christmas cards dent our dreams and damage our hopes, then there are some promises that never fail to be delivered.

For centuries God was prodding, gently nudging the people into a position to receive the Saviour. When the Messiah appeared, it was not what anyone expected. 

We too, as we travel through our own time, may not notice the gurgling sound of new birth in our world as much seeks to drown it out with manufactured noise.

We may not wholly believe that things are improving, for our time on earth is limited to just a few years.

We may not experience an instantaneous glaring light dispelling all darkness, so gradual is it.

But we might consider that we still only see things as if through a glass dimly and even if our faith is sometimes a little dented then maybe, just maybe, our trust in the God who never lets us down, whose promises are always kept will bring the world to a better place.

On occasions I still ponder the call to worship, I used the very first time I led a service as a Local Preacher forty years ago this May:

All that I have seen helps me trust the Saviour for all that I have not seen. For in Christ we can expect anything, hope for everything, yet fear nothing.

As this year draws to a close, and Christmas is just two days away, may we believe not so much in Father Christmas, as did Greg Lake for a while, but forever in the God who is the true Father and Mother of us all in Jesus Christ.

However, maybe Greg Lake had something to offer us all as the song came to a close, for he sang:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish, pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear.

Amen

An Affirmation

You know how rocked we are by the uncertainties of this life,

YET ALL CAN SEE THAT YOU BLESS US.

From the very depths of our souls, our joy wells up within us,

AND OUR HEARTS ARE BURSTING WITH LOVE FOR YOU.

You do things that are completely out of the ordinary for us,

THINGS WE THOUGHT WERE CONSIGNED TO PAST GENERATIONS;

But today, this very day, we know your compassion and mercy,

IT IS FREE FOR ALL TO RECEIVE.

Break down the pride that resists the truth;

Bring down those who have abused their positions of trust;

LIFT THOSE CRUSHED BY THE SYSTEMS THAT BURDEN THE WEAK AND POOR;

AND FILL THE POCKETS AND BELLIES OF THE EMPTY AND HUNGRY.

Raise the voices of the faithful,

GIVE US CONFIDENCE AND COURAGE TO SPEAK OUT

Against prejudice and contempt,

AGAINST THE LIES AND THE INJUSTICE,

So that tomorrow will be better than today,

AND THE SUN RISE ON DARKNESS, LOVE WARM THE COLD CORRIDORS OF POWER, AND TRUTH BECOME SUPREME ONCE MORE.

Based on the Magnificat

©Bruce Thompson

A Statement following the announcement of new restrictions over the Christmas period, by the Revd Bruce Thompson, Chair of the Lincolnshire Methodist District

Whether Christmas is a purely religious festival for you, or, as it is for a far greater number of the people in our nation today, a celebration of family, friendship, and nostalgia, the Prime Minister’s announcement on Saturday came as a massive blow. Since Saturday afternoon, I have had telephone conversations, email correspondence, texts and conversations on my dog walks with people who feel as if this is a very sorry end to what has been one of the most difficult years in peacetime history. You don’t need me to spell out the consequences of the increased restrictions for millions of people and the cancelation of a lack of significant easing for the rest. It is a bitter pill to swallow.

What our neighbours do not need right now is for followers of Jesus to ram home the ‘reason for the season’, or to somehow raise the topic of over-commercialisation of Christmas, or to retreat from this moment of national crisis. What our neighbours do need, in fact what we all need right now, is empathy, understanding, and a sense of solidarity. We live on an island, ably demonstrated by the closure of ports by those European nations whom we once valued as partners; as such, we must learn afresh what it is to get along with one another, to act in ways that are of benefit to all, and not to do anything that would bring harm to anyone.

Amongst my concerns arising from the Prime Minister’s statement is the impact such a sudden and unexpected change is having on the already fragile mental health of so many; hopes were raised, plans were made, and much of them came to nothing. We are at a delicate stage, we have to tread carefully with one another, and we must remain vigilant.

I want you all to know how much you are all in my thoughts and prayers. I hear of the amazing work so many churches and individuals have undertaken over the course of this year. It will have been exhausting at times, but I know that the wider communities have valued the ministry and mission of the Methodist Churches of Lincolnshire. People have been fed, clothed, counselled, held and loved.

As a District we have set aside an emergency fund, which can be drawn upon rapidly if need be.  This is for individuals and groups within Methodist churches that are seeking to meet the immediate needs of neighbours.  Set up only last week we have already supported the purchase of children’s clothing, underwear, shoes and sanitary products for those who are without. Alison sent the details round to ministers last week and I would strongly encourage you to contact Alison or me if you need to provide a quick response to these challenging times.

Lastly, our District Christmas Service will take on special significance this year.  It will be on the District Facebook site and made public for all to access, so, you won’t need to be a member of Facebook. This will be on Wednesday 23rd December 8 until 9pm.

As things continue to develop over the coming days, we will not overlook the suffering, we will not waver from our calling, and we will not be tempted to look for apparently easy ‘solutions’ provided by those who appreciate neither the complexities of this crisis nor the consequences of their responses. What we will do is revisit the Magnificat, a manifesto for Christian action in any generation and circumstance; this was how the early church sought to express the implications of the incarnation, God-with-us in human flesh and blood and it remains just as valid today.

Mary’s Song of Praise

Luke 1

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”