Christmas thoughts

24 December 2009

The past week has seen much of the country held in the grip of freezing weather which has brought in its wake not just inconvenience and travel disruption, but the tragic loss of life on the roads. It has also deepened the plight of those who live on the streets and for those who cannot afford to heat their homes.

“When the snow lay round about Deep and crisp and even” really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, yet in the spirit of Good King Wenceslas there have been countless acts of generosity and hospitality in the face of such extreme weather – not lease the reaction of the John Lewis store in High Wycombe, which gave overnight shelter to around 100 staff and customers trapped in the store by a blizzard – a wonderful example of responding to what really matters.  Perhaps inevitably it is only when the ‘chips are really down’ that we ask the question “What really matters?”

Yet as we prepare to celebrate the gift of a new birth in that stable of Bethlehem we need to remind ourselves that the story of Bethlehem – the story of shepherds, wise men, of angels and of the baby Jesus – isn’t a story which gives answers, rather it’s a story which asks a question and down the ages the Christmas story repeats that question afresh in each generation – what really matters?  The story of the birth of Jesus invites us to discover God in that child; to discover God in all the vulnerability of love; to discover God in all the risks and danger which that child encountered.

‘What really matters?’  is a demanding question, yet in answering it, our inner self, our values and our spirit is revealed.   As we look back on the story of this past year, that same question has woven its way through the events of 2009 – what really matters?  In the devastating floods in the Lake District; during the funerals of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan; as our economy has continued to flounder; as we have been disappointed by what has been revealed about some of our politicians; as we respond to the issues of climate change – we have to ask ourselves ‘what really matters?.  It is a question which challenges us to make sense of life and our response to that question gives shape, purpose and value to us and to our communities.

In the coming year there will be a general election.  The question from Bethlehem, the question to be found in the Christmas story – ‘What really matters?’ – needs to be addressed by those who will be seeking power.  For politicians who fail to address this fundamental  question will have little to offer the complexities of our world and of our society.

In that child Jesus we glimpse something of God’s answer to this question as we find value in the love and vulnerability of a baby.  It is in the story of Christmas that we being to discover what really matters as we glimpse God’s commitment to life and it is in the message of the angels that we glimpse the cost and value of peace in bringing joy to this world.

As we celebrate Christmas this year may the baby of Bethlehem ask you the question “What really matters to you?” and I pray that you will find your answer in the love and vulnerability of that child whom we celebrate at this time and through whom we can come to know God.

Address at Matthew Telford’s Funeral

26 November 2009

Today I had the privilege of speaking at the funeral of Sergent Matthew Telford:

Once again this historic church embraces a family and a community drawn together by the loss of a treasured loved one.  Drawn together in sadness and sorrow in a place that even on days like this dares to speak of hope. Drawn together to mingle words of remembrance with words of faith and of the possibility that there is more to life than we can possibly imagine.

The crowds gathered around the church today, as they gathered on Saturday when Matthew’s and Jimmy’s coffins arrived in Grimsby, speak powerfully of the deep respect that this community has for those who have lost their lives in the service of our country.

Yet there was far more to Matthew than his military service – he was a husband, a father, a son, a brother, and part of a family and of friends who treasured the life he shared with them.  Family and friends who loved and cherished Matthew, and the pain and emptiness they are living with now is a symptom of the deep love they have for Matthew – a love that will not let them go and which Matthew’s death does not in any way diminish.

As we share this moment with Matthew’s family – with Kerry, Harry, Callum, Ron, Cheryl and Eleanor  – giving thanks with them for Matthew’s life, love and service – we need to be wary of the armchair strategists who, informed only through the press,  pontificate on the rights and wrongs of the conflict in Afghanistan.  Matthew and his brave comrades died as they were sharing their skills with the Afghani people so as to bring stability, law and order to a troubled land, and such stability, law and order are fundamental elements for peace.  In the three weeks since we heard the tragic news of their deaths, Jesus’ words have been much in my prayers for Matthew and his comrades “How blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called Sons of God”.

Bringing peace, working for peace is a costly thing and the cross of Jesus is a symbol of that cost.  Today as we give thanks for Matthew’s life and love, as we stand alongside his family in their grief, as we pay our respects to a brave man – we commit and commend Matthew to all the rich possibilities of the God we have discovered in Jesus Christ – a God who yearns for peace in all the complexity of this world.

This church, like all churches, is full of the symbol of the cross on which Jesus died, because it is the cross of Jesus which points us to hope – a hope that there is more to each of us than our biology, a hope that amidst all the darkness of the conflicts in this world, a hope that amidst  all the evil that drives people to murderous deeds and callous indifference –  amidst all this, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, a love which is eternal and which will not let us go.  It is into this love which we commend and commit Matthew today – a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend and a comrade – a peacemaker among those whom Jesus calls “sons of God”.

Beware the simplicty of extremists

26 October 2009

Article in the Cleethorpes Chronicle  – 29.10.2009

There was a stark contrast between some of the views being aired on last Thursday’s BBC Question Time and the gathering of the Normandy Veterans Association in Westminster Abbey last weekend.  During Question Time we glimpsed the sort of extremism which feeds on demonising a particular group of people and, in contrast, on Sunday the veterans remembered the enormous human cost of combating extremism once it takes hold of power.  Extremism, whether it is political, economic or social, brings in its wake human suffering and misery – how little we learn from history.

The essential feature of the extremist is simplicity.  Simplistic answers to the problems of the age.  In a democracy it is seductive stuff because the simplicity of the extremist offers quick and easy remedies.  In Germany in the 1930’s it was the Jews who were blamed for all the problems and finding a final solution to the Jews would ensure that all would be well.  Tragically there is a long list in modern history where the simplistic answers of the extremists have led to appalling violence, genocide and ethnic cleansing.  In fact I cannot think of any situation where extremism has led to human happiness and flourishing.

The problem with extremist views is that they are cloaked in sounding plausible. Yet they have to distort the truth because they actually have no ability to answer the deep problems of society.    So for the extremist, all asylum seekers are ‘bogus’, people living on benefits are ‘scroungers’,  unemployment  is cause by immigrants and if only we could get back to the purity of the indigenous English people, then all would be well.

D-day vetsWhat utter nonsense it is, yet it is seductive because at elections we want to give power to those who are going to sort things out.  If only life was like that.  Yet as those D-day veterans know only too well – give power to an extremist and it has to be wrestled from them at great cost.

The Normandy Veterans gathering begins this season of remembrance leading up to 11th November.  Once again I will be thanking God for the sacrifice of so many in wresting power from the extremists, whilst praying that we will never again be seduced by their simplicity – for it masks the dark side of human nature which is crucifyingly costly to defeat.

Christmas is coming

20 December 2008

One of the things I love about Christmas day is that for just a few hours there is a different pace to life.  The shops shut, commerce is suspended, lorries are off the road and there is a pause in the rush and bustle of life.   Christmas continues to hold the attention not just of our own country, but of many, many countries across the world.

During a school visit, I was recently asked what does Christmas mean to me.  I found that the answer came quite easily as, for me, Christmas is about possibility – it is about the possibility of God.   There is no proof about God because of the Christmas story.  Angels, shepherds, wise men, gifts and a manger are much enjoyed details about a far bigger question. A question which is there each and every time we hold a newborn baby – what are the possibilities for this child?  Few of us who are parents or grandparents cannot but have been thrilled at encountering all the possibilities contained within the fragility and vulnerability of a new member to our family.

The birth of Jesus offers the same experience, but he is also wrapped in a belief that through this child we encounter the possibilities of God – possibilities which embraced love, peace, gentleness, kindness, forgiveness and hope.  I think that this is why so many people continue to be attracted to this baby of Bethlehem, for these possibilities are the very ones we hope to find in our own lives.  During this Christmas time, congregations in churches will swell and I suspect that many of those unfamiliar with church will come to sing carols and mouth unfamiliar prayers because they are drawn to the services by the reality that we all want these sorts of possibilities to be part of our lives as well.

Christmas is an invitation for us to renew ourselves in the possibilities of love, of peace, of gentleness, of kindness, or forgiveness and of hope that they may become the stuff of our lives as well.  I hope and pray that the qualities of life celebrated in this baby of Bethlehem will become ours, not just for a few hours each year, but for each and every day.

Originally published in the Cleethorpes Chronicle

Where’s the thirst for peace?

2 June 2008

One can hardly believe amidst all the natural disasters which bring so much grief and heartache in the world and especially at present to the people of China and Burma, that the weight of pain and grief is constantly added to by human folly. This weekend’s announcement by the Israeli government that they plan to build 900 homes in East Jerusalem is hardly the action of those who are thirsting for peace.

I am constantly drawn back to the young Palestinian scouts and guides whom we encountered in Manger Square in Bethlehem on our pilgrimage last year. They were demonstrating in their thirst for peace – “we deserve peace” they kept telling us as we mingled amongst them and their passionate thirst for it came through. Peace in the Holy Land will always be elusive until their is a thirst for peace and justice on both sides.

The future for peace is very bleak whist there is a government in Israel which is prepared to build houses in one of the most contentious parts Jerusalem. On the pilgrimage I am planning for next February (2009) we will have an opportunity to offer our prayers and support to the peoples of this troubled land.

The work of Sabeel – The Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem makes a vital contribution to mediating for peace. The Friends of Sabeel in the UK provides a good way for us to support and encourage a thirst for peace in the land which cradled the Gospel of Peace.