My latest Lent pondering takes the Christmas theme “God is with us” and looks at it through the lens of Lent, Passiontide and Easter.
Author: Village Vicar
Micah, the BBC and me
Back in the day, I worked at BBC Broadcasting House on a few occasions (recording radio shows for RTE Ireland). I once smiled at John Peel in the lobby there, and witnessed John Humphrys dashing out of the building, but this was as near to celeb stalking that I could manage. There was a buzz about the place and a sense of weight to what went on there. This was before the building had its revamp, so it still held that mid-20th century feel of being at the heart of national conversation, its 1920s architecture a reminder of aspirations after The Great War: “Nation shall speak peace unto nation”, was inscribed above the entrance (and indeed celebrated in stained glass in All Saints’ church in Thorp Arch!). This was a vision rooted in, and quoting Scripture, 2750+ year old words from the prophet Micah.
When he wrote this, the prophet Micah was addressing Israel and Judah (his own people) in a time of turmoil. This was the middle of the 8th century B.C.E. The Assyrian Empire is devastating the region, defeating Samaria and then Israel itself, leaving the southern kingdom of Judah alone to carry the flag of the people of God. Their calling was supposed to be acting as a godly light to all nations. But this must have looked like an impossible task. Devastation lay all around them. Refugees fleeing Assyrian persecution must surely have sought comfort and refuge among the people of God in those times. Perhaps there were people among them who spoke of these refugees as an invasion, framing them as a threat to the life of the nation using rhetoric redolent to our 21st Century ears of 1930s Germany? This would have been a time of isolation for these nations, lying apart from the major empires, political groupings and trading blocs. And Micah addresses a familiar human problem: in challenging times, at a time of national uncertainty and turmoil, how do we hold our nerve as people of faith and not nod along with those who call us to behave selfishly, unjustly and badly? How do we challenge those who seek security by scapegoating the vulnerable and minorities? How do we stand against those who stoke fear, who turn us against one another? And how do we offer sufficient space and grace to those whom we challenge so they can change direction (aka repent), change their tone, and bravely join the cause of righteousness?
On earth as it is in heaven?
Micah’s prophecy had two key themes. First, he challenges Israel and Judah to be more godly in their behaviour: they need to address their own evil behaviour rather than simply focusing on their enemies. Second, they need a vision of God’s eternal kingdom, beyond their current, challenging circumstances. Much of Micah’s indictment against Israel and Judah involves these nations’ injustice toward the powerless. Micah singles out corruption, robbery, mistreatment of the most vulnerable, and a government that lived in luxury off the hard work of its nation’s people. So what can we learn and apply from Micah today, here in the UK?
The BBC and me
Growing up in the UK in the 1970s & 80s, it was BBC radio that I tuned into in my bedroom. I had a portable radio with a mono earpiece and would often stay up late expanding my musical horizons on late night Radio 3, or listening to the world service and learning about life in these far-off places whose daily life and differing perspectives were so very different to my own. BBC Radio expanded my horizons and somehow informed my growing faith at the same time.
The music of Philip Glass blew me away in 1976 when I first heard “Spaceship” from his brand new opera Einstein on the Beach late one night. Glenn Gould’s Marmite approach to Bach, quirky and very personal, inspired me to start composing myself. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was an unexpected thing of beauty. The keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti made me laugh out loud at their reckless exuberance – the rock guitar shreds of their day. The late night programming on Radio 3 was where the Beeb brought out the fun stuff back then.
When I moved the dial to find the BBC World Service, this meant that I became aware of the wider world. I remember being fascinated by the challenges facing South American and African countries and Eastern European communist states, and how vulnerable minorities were so often the victims of injustice under regimes of very different political hues. I saw how fascism, communism, apartheid, occupation, dictatorships and political chaos all crushed the powerless: how extreme politics of both right and left each allowed evil to triumph. I also learned how important the arts are worldwide in enabling a wide variety of people to tell their stories and help us all gain understanding and empathy for how everyday life is affected by the huge, impersonal tides of history and politics. As my faith grew alongside all this, I also grew to understand how the prophets, the apostles and Jesus himself have always spoken into everyday life, into culture, into politics.
Part of the challenge of the Christian Faith is to learn how to apply what we know of God’s heavenly kingdom from Scripture here on earth, so having an open mind to learn about the world, as well as properly informed sources of information are part of our equipment as we work out how to pray, speak, engage and act in order to make the world (and ourselves) a better, more holy place.
A less famous inscription can be found outside Broadcasting House. The author George Orwell worked at BH for a time, and beside his statue are words of this committed humanist which sit very well alongside Micah’s:
If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”George Orwell – an essay on the freedom of the press, written as a preface to ‘Animal Farm’ but not included in the original publication
These words certainly apply to Micah whose criticism of his nation cannot have made him universally popular, especially among the rich and powerful. Orwell himself commented in the same preface to Animal Farm that he knew well the excuses intelligent people of influence make for not speaking out, but that these usually boiled down to timidity and dishonesty. The people of God are always called to speak out, to overcome their timidity and to be honest when their faith and morality compels them to call out injustice, oppression and evil. In every generation, in every country, we are called to be Micahs in the here and now. Being more Micah means being dismissed as woke, being called a snowflake, being told that Christians should stay out of politics. It means that our speaking up will be equated with “cancelling” the rhetoric and action we oppose. It means “whataboutery” will be used to deflect from the criticisms we raise. It means that we will be attacked as a distraction from the issue we raise – that we and our speaking out (rather than the evil we seek to highlight and argue against) becomes the story. It means all that and more. The same applies to any prophet in any age, and most certainly applied to Jesus. If it doesn’t apply to us Christians, we need to up our game.
Two mottos: one challenge
Let us speak peace unto our own nation, and to all nations. The peace Christians are called to share is the Gospel – God’s Good News for all people. Sharing God’s Good News inevitably involves calling people to look at themselves critically, and then to turn from whatever they find within themselves which is wrong, unworthy, and evil (a process called repenting). In other words, we’re called to tell people what they often do not want to hear, but also to offer space for repentance: to have the grace to let people repent and accept them when they do. We’re also called to reflect and repent ourselves – this isn’t about setting ourselves up as a moral authority, but pointing ourselves and others towards God, the only true source of authority. But as Broadcasting House’s mottos remind us, if we are not truly pursuing peace in the human heart and in the world, if we are not standing up to populist ‘othering’ of groups of people, whether refugees, people of sexual and gender minorities, disabled people or citizens of other nations, and if we are not speaking words of challenge, rebuke and a call to repentance, then it is not liberty we are pursuing. It is something far different, far darker, and far from godly.
The Journey towards Hope
When it comes to the mood music of the nation, I reckon lament is not our “go to” idiom these days. It feels unpatriotic. The keynote mood of the nation after Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s death was thanksgiving rather than lament. The national narrative at the time was of solemn thanksgiving for a life well-lived, a pause to ponder the decades of her reign, and the mood music of the nation, at least to my mind, was not lament. Respect, thankfulness, and a sense of the end of a chapter in our national life were what I sensed as the song the nation seemed to be singing. The state funeral naturally did include an appropriate amount of material which pondered mortality and lament but more generally, this was not the national mood music of the time.
Once the Covid19 lockdowns of 2020-2021 were over, while there were church services to remember those who died during the initial phases of this ongoing pandemic, and certainly spaces were created for mourning both in churches and in gestures such as the National Covid Memorial Wall, the national instinct (at least, in terms of how it was presented in the media) seems to have been to nod to this at best, and certainly not to dwell on anything which spoke of lament, perhaps afraid that to lament too loudly would be seen as overt political criticism or somehow unpatriotic in the face of the national effort, notably by key workers.
Perhaps our avoidance of lament as an important step in our national recovery is partly an instinct to cut straight to hope – to hit a positive tone, an upbeat way forward, shaking off the trauma of the Covid years and resolving to get on with life. This is nothing new. The Great War soon gave way to the roaring 20s in terms of how our national tale is told, yet those who returned from the battlefield had a very different tune in their hearts from the celebration of peace which the nation demanded. Generally they never spoke of what they had lived through for fear of disrupting the nation’s focus on “the glorious dead’. It took a long time for other tunes to be heard more widely, and certainly to be accepted as a widening of our national understanding of what had been lived through. If you want to ponder this more deeply, I heartily recommend asking your local library to get hold of a copy of Rachel Mann’s book Fierce Imaginings – The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God.
There are lots of possible reasons why we sidestep lament, or feel it has no place in our national song. But what do we do when our hearts are not ready to hope? How do we honour those who need to lament? How do we create safe spaces where they can weep, and how do we find appropriate ways to weep with them? When our own song is not one of hope, but of grief, lament, hopelessness or depression it is hard not to feel like we are failing, and are not in step with the rest of the world.
Lament is often a very necessary stage in the journey towards hope. In the Psalms we frequently read words of lament, born of exile, famine, persecution, disgrace, death and a sense of abandonment by God – an overwhelming hopelessness. And yet these psalms often end with words of hope, born of faith in God who always loves us, even if our circumstances lead us to doubt that.
In all generations there are times when hope looks a frail thing indeed for many people. I grew up in Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s when there was a lot of unemployment and seemingly never-ending strikes. My earliest memories include candles in power cuts (which were quite exciting to me at the time), radio reports of a bomb in Belfast (which was troubling but seemingly distant), mills closing (which affected my dad’s work in the textile industry), and the threat of nuclear war (which was just “a thing in the background” for everyone). At a fairly early age I won our village fancy dress competition in a costume which involved my riding a hobby horse, festooned in balloons and pound signs, titled “Galloping Inflation” (and no, I don’t have a photo of this handy, but I was turned into a literal, physical satirical meme by my mother at this tender age, and with good reason!). This was the national mood music. But not everyone’s experience was the same, and certainly my childhood was a happy one, and looking back, I had cause to hope. My generation was the first in my family to be able to consider going to university. Music education was still taken seriously by governments. I joined a thriving local church choir, and then Huddersfield Choral Society, and then the National Youth Choir, and all these opportunities opened all kinds of doors to me in life and gave me experiences and skills which have served me well. I suppose what I’m acknowledging is that hope and hopelessness varies within each generation, and within everyone’s life, as does opportunity. But I do think that every generation can tell its own story of the challenges and sources of hopelessness which had an impact on some more than others.
The world around us swirls like an unpredictable sea, with everyone facing the same storms but some of us in sturdier boats than others, yet there are times for every generation when hope seems to be elusive. And yet the Christian Gospel is a story of hope in the face of the very worst the world can throw at us. The cross is where love met hopelessness, took the burden of sin and death, submitted to its weight, died with it… and prevailed. Jesus met hopelessness head on, took the whole weight of our sin and death when he died on the cross. Hope died with him, too, at least that is the reality his mother and his friends must have experienced. Surely their songs of lament were still going on three days later when Jesus rose from death, still bearing the wounds of the cross. Hope won through, but not before the songs of lament had finished.
So after we weep with those who weep, hear their song of lament, and walk with them on their Way of Sorrows, how do we turn our inner hope into a living reality, for ourselves and for the world around us? There are some words which are often attributed to St Augustine, but there’s no actual evidence that they are his, and certainly I can’t tell you which of his writings they are supposed to be from. But despite their spurious provenance, they ring true, if not as words of Augustine himself, then as rooted in the Christian Faith:
Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.pseudo-Augustine
If we see ourselves as people offering a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death, when we see others who are lamenting, our instinct should be to weep with them, but also to allow our hearts to empathize with their anger at the circumstances which gave them cause to lament. Out of control anger isn’t what we should be offering in response to their lament, but I believe that God listens to the human heart, tunes in to human emotions and responds, and so should we. Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, so grief and lament must be in tune with God’s nature. When we’re faced with folk who lament, anger-empathy helps us pray in a way which opens our hearts to the work of the Holy Spirit and to acting in distinctly Jesussy ways in response. As we pray, we should be seeking the mind of Christ whose empathy with those who were being exploited and excluded caused him to seize a whip and angrily flip tables over in the temple. We should pray in a way which inspires us to courageous, godly action in response to lament.
God listens to those who lament, and weeps with them, and so should we. Lament and grief are not signs of failure, just of being human. If we pray in hope, and if our empathy is with those who have reason for anger, God’s Spirit is with us, and as we pray, we can seek the mind of Christ. This can inspire courageous, loving actions, and so the song of lament – on our own account, or in solidarity with others – turns to a song of hope, which we sing as we set out to respond to causes of lament with acts of courageous love.
May it be so. Amen.
Not in a cascade of noise and praise
But quietly, unseen, uncelebrated.
It came, heralded not by Alleluias
But by tears and sighs.
Not in tongues of flame
Or dramatic outpourings,
But in shared silence, tear-stained vigils;
In listening, rather than explaining.
Not through feeling holier
Nor suddenly being on Cloud Nine,
But in being known, accepted
Warts and all, even in despair.
And revival came:
Not in a sudden mass-revelation
Of deep things suddenly understood;
Revival came heart by heart, one by one…
yet communally, kindly, in shared love.
As Love stared into the darkness,
Stood and wept into another’s wounds
And washed as it wept
And healed and cleaned and comforted.
Are we just God’s AI project?
An unscripted stream of consciousness which burbled out the night after I underwent spinal surgery. I hope it i inspired by the Holy Spirit more than morphine…
Hope is born.
Visions and the brain
On the morning of Her Majesty’s Funeral
Sermon given on 10th September 2022 at an ecumenical Special Commemoration Service for our Sovereign Lady, the Late Queen Elizabeth II. St Mary the Virgin, Boston Spa – service led by The Reverend Steve Jakeman (Presbyter, Boston Spa Methodist Church), The Reverend Nick Morgan (Vicar, St Mary’s) and The Reverend Glenda Webb (Associate Priest, St Mary’s)
Bible Reading: Revelation 21.1-7
The New Heaven and the New Earth
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
What an amazing vision from St John the Divine: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth…. the holy city (a vision of peace) coming down from heaven to be among humanity… see, God is making all things new”
This vision of God’s Kingdom at the end of time is a reality into which our late Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, has a clearer glimpse then we. By the grace of Jesus her Lord and Saviour, she is welcomed among the saints in heaven, the limitations of age, time and mortality lifted.
But God’s Kingdom is not merely a distant vision. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God was inaugurated and made a reality on earth as it is in heaven – it is the now and future Kingdom. The home of God is among mortals, God will dwell with them and they will be God’s people: that is our vision for the here and now, as well as for eternity. This means that our lives are not mere preludes to the hereafter, but they matter: they are part and parcel of God’s business here on earth. In our earthly lives, we are called to be citizens of heaven, not exiles – but ambassadors. Queen Elizabeth certainly embraced that calling in her unique calling as monarch, supreme governor of the Church of England, head of the commonwealth and the myriad other roles she undertook. She was an amazing ambassador of the Kingdom of God.
Many people have reacted more strongly, more emotionally, than they thought they would to the death of our Queen. There is a sense of the end of an era, not merely because the crown passes to a new King, but because Her Majesty’s life was so bound up with our personal, as well as national, history. Few of us can remember a time when she was not there as part of our life, often in the background rather than the foreground on a day-to-day basis, but always there. Her speech to the nation during the Covid lockdown was such a comfort to so many people because it was as though we suddenly saw a true leader, the head of our national family, talking to us to strengthen our resolve, offer comfort to the bereaved and fearful, and assure us of better times ahead. For some, even though she was old and frail, her death was a huge shock as she was the nation’s rock – always there, especially in times of uncertainty. But death is a universal reality, and one which our queen did not fear because, like her son King Charles, she had a strong, personal faith in Jesus and was assured of her salvation. But this personal faith was not something she kept to herself. She attended worship faithfully, and often publicly; she was constant in daily prayer; and she brought her faith to bear on her role. Her annual Christmas speech often drew on this faith, and her very natural way of expressing this and linking it to our national life, and the life of the Commonwealth, stemmed from her faith being a lived reality. She lived in the now and future Kingdom of heaven, lived out that reality of God being at home here and now in the world we live in through the person of Jesus, and through the presence of God’s Church enlivened by the Holy Spirit right here, right now, across the world.
We are rightly saddened by Queen Elizabeth’s death. Death is no matter to be brushed off or belittled. Indeed, death is such a serious matter that God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to take death upon himself and defeat it on the cross. That resurrection faith was Her Majesty’s faith, and so in the light of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter day, we can rejoice amid our sadness that she has a clearer vision of that eternal new heaven and new earth which St John the Divine wrote about.
We thank God for calling Queen Elizabeth to her role on earth, for sustaining her in that role, and for empowering her to be such a wonderful ambassador for God’s Kingdom. More than that, we thank Jesus for his presence in her life and work, and for the example that gives: how a life of faith can make a difference. That example has certainly given comfort and strength to King Charles as he begins this new chapter of his own calling as a servant of God, and I am glad that he, too, is a prayerful person of strong faith.
Today we say “Thank God for Elizabeth, the servant queen, ambassador of Christ.” And as we look ahead to an unknown future, we remember that God alone is Sovereign, Jesus alone is Head of the Church, but we pray that King Charles III might like his mother, be a true ambassador for God’s Kingdom and, not only for the Church of England, but for all followers of Christ in our nation and Commonwealth, our partner in the Gospel. God save the King. Amen.