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Doubting Thomas – a sermon

John 20.24-31

Thomas was a reasonable man. He had heard stories that Jesus was back again from the dead. But he knew otherwise: the dead don’t return to haunt the earth. So, even when his friends told him that Jesus was truly risen, he didn’t believe them. They were fooling themselves, so he thought.

Thomas has become the bogeyman of many a sermon. “Not enough faith, Thomas”, the preacher says. “You should have had more trust in Jesus”. Even though he eventually responds to Jesus’s appearance to him with the most exalted of all declarations, “My Lord and my God”, that won’t do for those Christians who think he got there too late and with too much help.

In recent years, however, another spin has been put on the Thomas story. There’s no better patron saint for our skeptical age than Doubting Thomas. So, in liberal churches, Thomas becomes almost a hero or, at least, the disciple we can most relate to. He’s a man for our times, who speaks to our uncertainties; an antihero, perhaps? Like us, he knew that failure and disappointment are woven into the fabric of life, that no good deed goes unpunished.

As it happens, I’m not sure that either assessment of Thomas, the faithless follower or the pessimistic pragmatist, does him much justice. I picture him somewhat differently.

Thomas seems to have been a reasonable man. But was he? Are we really dealing with a man who follows evidence wherever it leads him, whatever the cost to his hopes and dreams, a man would like to believe but can’t? Maybe. But I’m not convinced.  I don’t think it’s Thomas’s fierce and fearless intellect that best explains his cynical reaction to the news that Jesus was raised from the dead.

He’d had a terrible shock. When Jesus died, so did Thomas’s hopes and dreams, all his plans for the future. When his friends told that him that God had raised Jesus from death, if Thomas been another sort of person he might have been thrilled and super-hyped. But that wasn’t his way. He’d been hurt and didn’t want to be hurt again. Allowing himself once again to hope and dream would be unbearable, if these accounts were simply fantastic tales fueled by liquor, wishful thinking, and hysteria. Thomas wasn’t super-rational so much as frozen in grief, using reason as a barrier to stop him being hurt again. He wasn’t a skeptic; he was in pain, that pain of the spirit and of the imagination which is just as real as physical agony, and often longer lasting.

If Thomas was as I have said, then the words of the risen Jesus to him could seem very harsh indeed: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Except: when you’re locked up in yourself, almost unable to function because of the hand life has dealt you, sometimes it takes a harsh word to set you free, a word that is cruel in order to be kind. Something, maybe, that provokes you to a flash of temper, an outburst that jolts you back to life. When Thomas finally sees Jesus again and responds to his mocking words, I can imagine him saying: “Not fair, Jesus. How dare you do this to me?” And then, with the adrenaline rush of rage, its attendant reactions of tears, relief, joy and hope; once suppressed, now set free.doubting-thomas

This is the last story of John’s gospel, who sums up his account of Jesus by declaring that he’s written “these things … so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” John places all of his stories in a masterly way: Thomas rounds things off, because John is telling us that anyone like Thomas, who wants to believe but whose main problem is within themselves, so that they can’t quite get to where they want to be, may still be shaken and stirred by God’s love, until they do.

Like Thomas, I am a reasonable man, who sometime uses reason as an excuse not to take risks, to stay in my comfort zone where I can analyze, reflect and comment at one remove from where, perhaps, I ought to be. I laugh at the follies of others, and also at my own. I don’t like joining things. I’m wary of getting hurt. This works, for much of the time. But maybe it’s a coward’s, or an antihero’s attitude to life, in need of change.

The thing is: because life sucks, we get hurt anyway. So maybe we should take the risk of accepting the limits of reason. It isn’t the only tool with which to uncover the secrets of life, or to know how things really are. And it’s a particularly bad master if you use it as an excuse for not taking life by the scruff of the neck and becoming all you’re capable of being.

To put it another way: we’re more than our brains. Life should be experienced and interpreted though emotions, imagination, intuition, and many other things that lie beyond reason’s compass.

But, just in case you think I’m encouraging you to be unreasonable, let me put in a word for the life of the mind. I only have to read a student essay to realize the importance of reason. I am always amazed how many confident eighteen-year olds think that their trivial prejudice, based on nothing at all substantial, trumps facts, wisdom and commonsense. In class conversations, as well, some students reveal their self-absorbed fantasies; for example, a belief that the truth or falsehood of human-made climate change is decided by their uninformed opinion, what they want it to be, rather than by verifiable scientific evidence.

And, let’s face it, it’s not just a young and entitled generation that insists on the truth of its own ignorance. Religious people excel at believing impossible and hurtful things that are easily disprovable. A Muslim friend of mine who runs a mosque in Cape Town, South Africa, tells me that many of his congregation, when they take off their shoes before entering the worship area, leave their brains in them.

Would that it were just a few Muslims! Turn on the television most days, and you’re likely to hear an unctuous Christian pastor peddle his mindless and venomous drivel, passing it off as the will of God, and encouraging his followers to abandon the constraints of decency and of reason.

So hats off to everyone who thinks, and who thinks things through. No wonder Jesus was sort of okay with Thomas’s skepticism. Better that than pious, self-serving claptrap.

Yet reason is not, of itself, a sufficient compass by which to navigate life, any more than is phony religion. As I see it, the religious life, at its best, does not bypass reason. Rather, it surpasses reason. There is more to life than meets the eye. Beyond what we observe and process lie holiness, wisdom, the meaning and end of all things

It is to the mystics that I turn, to sustain my faith. The mystics covet an experience that takes you through reason but lies beyond it. The word mystic comes from a Greek word, muein, meaning to shut your eyes. You close your eyes and then you really see, scanning the universe with the inner eye of the soul; with what some Hindus call, the third eye. Truth lies beyond our capacity fully to grasp it, by reason or any other tool, so we must allow truth to grasp us. How it does, is hard to explain. So let me tell a story. When, like Thomas, I was once frozen in grief, I read the words of the great Muslim mystic, Jamal al-Din Rumi. He wrote this dialogue:

I said: what about my eyes?
God said: Keep them on the road.

I said: What about my passion?
He said: Keep it burning.

I said: What about my heart?
He said: Tell me what you hold inside it?
I said: Pain and sorrow.
He said: Stay with it. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

At that moment, I knew that I had found in Rumi a friend across the centuries, who understood. Just as I think that Thomas found in the risen Christ a bracing friend, who got him.images

I admire Thomas, in part because he took the gospel to India, a country very dear to my heart, where I learned to be me. Thomas gave his life to tell others of Jesus, in a far land where he knew nothing and no one. To do that, he needed more than his doubts; he also and certainly needed more than reason; he needed to close his eyes, and let the light enter him, warm him, transform him. If, like him, we are to embrace life in all its fullness, then we too need to let the light enter us, warm us, transform us. From what I learned in India and, fitfully, since, I know that it can and does.

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Christmas

The last few years, and this past year in particular, many, too many, close family members and friends have died. I write that, not in complaint but as a matter of fact. I am, after all, almost 66 years old, and death and mortality are the ordinary state of things.

I love Christmas, but the last couple have been busy ones for me, responding to mortal illness. So, I’ve indulged myself this year, listening to Rutter carols, Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ, and other seasonal favorites. I intend to take myself off to see The Man Who Invented Christmas, and to watch at least one movie form of A Christmas Carol.

I love this season of the year. The story of the babe in Bethlehem has a magical touch of stardust about it. Yet it’s not entirely or even chiefly sentimental. The gospel stories are as much about suffering and death as they are about life and new beginnings. As T’S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi puts it: “were we led all that way for birth or death?”

A few people have, understandably, asked me how I’ve maintained Christian faith in the midst of human agony, disintegration and death. Mostly, I’ve deflected the question. In the face of so great a mystery, the best answer is silence. There are, however, many other partial answers to that question, and Christmas offers a combination of them: birth and new life, suffering and death, human meaning, are focused in a vulnerable baby. God comes, not in power, but trusting himself to a young girl:

Emptied of His majesty,
Of His dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s Source begins to be,
And God Himself is born

Vulnerability, brokenness and pain can be the vehicles of salvation.images

Many Christians tell of a God who uses and abuses power, and encourages them to do likewise. 2017 has offered us many examples of this. I prefer the Christmas story: God, who heals and recreates through empathy and example, humility and hope.

And so, I abide in hope that the beloved dead make the distant heavens a home for us. Meanwhile, there is work to be done.

Merry Christmas to you all, and a Happy New Year.

“My Hope is in the Lord”: a sermon for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther’s language was often coarse; his sense of humor was unsubtle (he’d never use a rapier wit if a bludgeon was to hand); his writings are full of crude invective – sometimes comically so, when pointing out the shortcomings of popes, sometimes appallingly so, in his vicious condemnation of Jews. He overstates everything.martin-luther-9389283-1-402

Luther, probably more than anyone else, was responsible, five hundred years ago, for destroying the medieval church that, in central and western Europe, had given people, from prince through priest to peasant, a sense of common beliefs and values. He was a monk who, intending to reform the church, broke it apart into sects and denominations. You’re thinking that I’m not a fan? And yet…

I’d like to explore with you three of Luther’s great achievements.

The first is his conviction that the church must always be ready and willing to reform its beliefs and actions. He didn’t just talk, as religious leaders are inclined to do, but got things done. He translated the Bible into German, so that ordinary people might read it; he brought an end to the celibacy of the clergy, believing it to be an unnecessary practice, and himself married an ex-nun; he wrote some wonderful hymns (and penned the odd dud as well), so that worshipers could sing the faith. Above all, he attacked the foolish belief that wicked, wealthy people could buy their way into heaven. The popes of his day had raised huge sums of money from that scam. Without it, the Sistine chapel and other renaissance glories of the Vatican wouldn’t have been built. Still, Luther was right. It’s the church’s responsibility to be self-critical, always seeking to reform itself, rather than be wealthy and powerful.

American Christians would do well to heed Luther’s conviction. The greatest fault of Christians in this country is to criticize others, sure of their own righteousness. Listen to many preachers here and you’d think that, if only the church controlled the state, everything would be hunky-dory. Meanwhile, there’s barely a shade of self-criticism, so the church is riddled with what Luther would have deemed heresies: that wealth is an absolute good; that poor people deserve their poverty and should be helped minimally, if at all; that pastors and politicians should be given the benefit of the doubt, even when common sense and empirical evidence show them to be self-serving and vindictive. On this last point, Luther didn’t always practice what he preached. But, at its best, Luther’s insight would tell many American Christians to stop blaming the Supreme Court, liberals, and others for what’s wrong in society, and to look within. Only by reforming themselves, can Christians do away with such nonsense as the prosperity gospel, which makes rich, overpaid, sometimes rapacious evangelists better role models than Jesus of Nazareth, who said: “Blessed are you poor…” A reformed American church might then try to persuade others of the values of the kingdom of God, rather than impose those of mammon and the market.

Luther’s second great achievement was to give the Bible a fitting importance for faithful people. The medieval church left the Bible in Latin, a language that had ceased to be widely spoken for centuries. Even many priests were clueless about it, let alone the laity. Luther built on the work of other translators to make the Bible open to everyone. He himself translated it into German. Yet he saw it for its real worth. For Luther, Jesus was God’s word, how the deity chose to communicate with his creation, as one of us. The Bible is a witness to that. And bits of it are better witnesses than others. Luther called the New Testament letter of James a right-strawy epistle, because he thought, quite rightly, that it’s a work of far less importance to the formation of Christian character than, say, Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans. Here again, many American Christians could learn from his view of the Bible. Luther had no truck with foolish fantasies that the Bible is a book of science, or that it means what it says without a responsible person or tradition to interpret it, or that it’s all of equal value, or that quoting it closes off any discussion. The modern evangelical tendency to fetishize the Bible, to make it into more than it is, would have appalled Luther.18865pst160101_pg15_shutterstock_60115108

Luther had little time for the letter of James because, in his opinion, it misunderstands the relation between faith and works. James tells us that “faith without works is dead”.  Luther knew that James’s explanation of the link between faith and works is trivial.

The question of how faith and works are related is an old and vexing one for Christians. Some load the dice in favor of faith, so that when their pastor is caught with his pants down and his hand in the till, it’s okay when he gushes forth tears and claims to repent, because he’s a man of faith. Luther would have thought that cheap faith, and those who buy into that nonsense shallow Christians, if Christian at all. Most liberal Christian and secular people nowadays are convinced that what we do is more important than what we believe. Luther would have questioned that, too.

So his third and greatest achievement was to change the nature of the debate about faith and works. For him: How does your trust in God shape the person you are in the world as it really is?

For Luther, the world isn’t full of people who’d be nice, if only social and economic circumstances worked for their betterment. No Marxist, he. Nor would it be a better place if rich people had sweeping tax cuts so that the crumbs could fall off their table at the feet of the undeserving poor. No Reagan capitalist, he. The world isn’t steadily improving under the benign guidance of old white men. No believer in Teddy Roosevelt’s and Rudyard Kipling’s vision of the white man’s burden, he. Nor would he fall for the liberal fallacy that transferring power and influence to or sharing power with women, gay people, and other marginalized groups would, of itself, cut the Gordian knot of human selfishness and usher in the good times.

For Luther, the world is a dark place, where human souls are in thrall to Satan’s desires. I look at today’s world, its veneer of civilization easily planed away by populist politicians, and think he had a point. Our works are not the making of us, but our self-deceiving. People do terrible things, and justify them according to their prejudices, thinking themselves to be good Christians. Kids are thrown out of Christian homes, because of their sexuality. Women are forbidden abortions, and left, literally to carry the baby. Our so-called good deeds can be a justification for self-interest.

Our hope lies in trusting that God is like Jesus, not that people are basically decent. When Luther talks of such trust, having faith in God, he doesn’t mean disengaging your brain and believing self-serving imbecilities. Rather, it’s putting your hope in the lived proposition that God is good. Often, God doesn’t seem so, but trusting that she is, is a better basis for hope than trusting that we instinctively know and do the right thing.Sistine_Chapel

Luther expressed in his hymns this belief that, in our wicked world, God, not presidents, politicians and pastors, or our own good deeds, is the only sure ground of our faith and hope. As always, he overstates to make his point. Even so, at moments in my life when I’ve been overwhelmed by despair, it’s to one of his hymns that I often go for comfort, challenge and renewal. So, let the remarkable, transformative Dr. Luther have the last word about what really matters. He wrote:

OUT of the depths I cry to thee,
Lord God! O hear my prayer!
Incline a gracious ear to me,
And bid me not despair:
If thou rememberest each misdeed,
If each should have its rightful meed,
Lord, who shall stand before thee?

‘Tis through thy love alone we gain
The pardon of our sin;
The strictest life is but in vain,
Our works can nothing win;
That none should boast himself of aught,
But own in fear thy grace hath wrought
What in him seemeth righteous.

Wherefore my hope is in the Lord,
My works I count but dust,
I build not there, but on his word,
And in his goodness trust.
Up to his care myself I yield,
He is my tower, my rock, my shield,
And for his help I tarry…

Though great our sins and sore our wounds,
And deep and dark our fall,
His helping mercy hath no bounds,
His love surpasseth all.
Our trusty loving Shepherd, he
Who shall at last set Israel free
From all their sin and sorrow.

 

India

Seventy years ago today, August 15th 1947, India won independence from British rule. Forty years ago today, I’d just returned from two years in India, and was preparing to take up an appointment as assistant minister at Hinde Street Methodist Church, London, and Methodist chaplain to London University. I was twenty-five, and had just lived the two most formative years of my life.

I went to India, I think, with an openness of heart and a generosity of spirit, but was certainly a child of my time. I thought that the raj had brought to the South Asian subcontinent: administrative competence; governmental flair; the benefits of western education and medicine. Little did I know. The British were in India for their own ends and, in many ways, impoverished and divided the country they ruled. But it isn’t my purpose, in these short musings, to develop the theme of this paragraph.

Instead, I want to record my debt to India. The British Methodist Church sent me to the Church of South India. I was ordained deacon, served in St John’s Church, Secunderabad, an English-speaking congregation, and saw the church at its best. St__Johns_Church__Secunderabad__Andhra_Pradesh_1To be sure, there was corruption and infighting, but that happened in the wider church where, for the most part, I didn’t see it. I experienced instead that a white English student and pastor, the follower of a long-ago Jewish rabbi, could be welcomed and made at home by Indians, whether Telegus, Bengalis, Punjabis or others. I gained the conviction that God has many favorites, and delighted in the friendship, not just of Christians but also of: a Parsi poet; a Jewish educator; a Sikh holy woman; a Muslim imam; a Hindu skeptic. I never wanted to demonize them. I quickly realized that God loved them and had much to teach me through them.

I’d also like to put in a word for missionary colleagues. Many of them gave their lives to the conviction that God loves all whom she has made, and that there’s joy and fulfillment in giving up attachments to a homeland in order to witness to that love elsewhere. To be sure, some missionaries I met were determined to ignore what I quite clearly saw: that God could be and obviously was experienced by people outside the church. But many more were remarkable people and when they returned to England, Australia and the USA, proved able to offer profound insights into the increasing religious and racial pluralism of those countries.

I lived, successively, with two Indian Christian families, and they treated me as one of their own. I don’t have words to express my gratitude to them, or the depths of my love for them. After my wife died recently, their love and support has been one of the things that has kept me going.

These days, visiting India is a bit harder than it used to be. Mosquitoes, noise, traffic, negotiating airports and taxis: these things irritate me far more than they used to. Still, I hope I have one more trip to India in me before the grim reaper comes to pay me his visit. The country is beautiful, and so are my friends. I dream of it, and of them, often.

 

We live in an age of: divisive and mendacious politicians; white people willing to be persuaded that the clock can be put back to a romanticized time, disastrous for others, when they were top dog; religion, divorced from the teachings of Jesus and many other profound teachers, used as a tool to oppress others.

The only world we’ve got is a diverse one, including: men and women; Christians, Muslims and many more; theists, polytheists, pantheists and atheists; white, brown, yellow, mixed, and more. Our only hope lies in accepting the world’s diversity, and rejoicing in it. I learned that in India, and am forever grateful.

Getting to Easter

Holy Saturday is the day of death, poised between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For me, it feels like the place I’ve mostly been these last few months, waiting for my wife to die and hoping that there’s resurrection. And her’s hasn’t been the only death recently. I’m learning that that the death of loved ones is inevitable if you get to my age (I’ve just been sent my Medicare Part A card until Speaker Ryan snatches it away from me, and have also picked up my British State Pension). There have been many, too many, intimations of mortality.

And so I wait for Easter. Will I recognize signs of resurrection when I see them? The gospel accounts suggest that Jesus’s followers didn’t, for they were seeking, not resurrection but restoration, the recovery of what was lost. Mary mistakes the risen Jesus for a gardener; and two disciples walk with Jesus to the village of Emmaus, unaware that it’s him until his characteristic act of breaking bread.  But the past has gone forever, and all the tears in the world can’t undo the present and restore what’s lost. Faith is the triumph of hope, not of nostalgia.

I talk to Udho every day, and am not too troubled by her lack of response. Faith tells me that she has a life beyond my life, so I must let her go and accept that she has new things to do and be. Just occasionally, I seem to catch a glimpse of her smile, an echo of her laughter. That must be enough for now, though I wish there were more.

As for the future? Well, tomorrow, I shall play a record of Maria Callas singing the Easter Hymn from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and echo her words: “Inneggiamo il signor non è morto”: – “Let us rejoice, for the Lord is not dead”. Some of my friends will tell me: “Christ is Risen”. And I shall respond: “He is Risen indeed”. This year, I’m keenly aware that there is real suffering, actual death, before there can be resurrection. And I shall hope to recognize it when it comes to me.

Death

My dear friend Gerrie Lubbe died recently. He was given a hero’s funeral service at his church in South Africa. Gerrie played a brave and important role in the freedom struggle there, and was the first president of the South African Chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with whom he worked closely, was present yesterday to see Gerrie off. But where to? What do Christians believe about death?12469615_917764874976643_3971013783331307134_o

Christmas draws our attention to the fact of death. Indeed, T.S. Elliot called Christmas “this birth season of decease”. For, as he put it, through the medium of the Magi:

“There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt.”

Yet the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew are shot through with references, not just to new life, the birth of a baby, but to death. For example, the ancient Simeon, when he recognizes the infant as the fulfilment of God’s promises, asks for his own death:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation…”

But Simeon promised Mary, not peace but agony: “a sword will pierce through your own soul also”. Prescient words: John records how, thirty years or so later, Mary was at the foot of the cross, on which her son was hanging and dying.images (1)

Too many people make religion either exclusive and bad-tempered, or else cloying and sentimental. Death is what some nasty religious people think is what should happen to those who believe and act differently from them. Or else it’s what mawkish religious people hope is a chance to enter an existence where things simply get better: “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”, as Joe Hill’s 1911 parody of the hymn “In the sweet By- and By” has it.

No wonder Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud thought, in rather different ways, that religion offered an illusory vision of a heavenly reality that sensible and reasonable people should reject. However, their beliefs somewhat misunderstand the Jewish roots from which they sprang. For most of the Old Testament period, Jews had no positive convictions about a warm and fuzzy hereafter. As the psalmist put it: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!” (Psalm 27:13). Even more bluntly, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote that:

“whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun” (9: 4-5)

Religion is mostly at its best when it’s forthright and challenging.

There’s no space here to frame a coherent Christian understanding of death. I doubt that there is one, anyway; only an impressionistic, elusive poetic sense that there may be more to life than meets the eye.

I offer two brief, elusive impressions.

First: our knowledge that we will certainly die should make us think hard about what we want to make of the gift of life. Some find the author of Ecclesiastes grim and hopeless and so, to a point, he is. But only to a point. Mostly, he challenges us to make the most of this life. For a summary of how to, I find John Wesley helpful: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

My second impression: as all aging people do, I occasionally think of death as the closure to life and wonder, “Is that it?”, partly in the sense of whether something comes after, but mostly to ponder the desolate thought that I may not have taken full advantage of the gift of life. I may have been an unprofitable servant. At such times, it’s not to scientists and religious theologians to whom I mostly turn to elucidate so great a mystery, but to poets and mystics. I’m happy, for example, to sing wonderful doggerel like:

“When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to Thee;
I will ever give to Thee.”

I’m even happier to ponder the words of the extraordinary Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-73). Today, I read them and think of Gerrie, and am thankful for all he was and hopeful for all that might yet be:

“Knock, And He’ll open the door
Vanish, And He’ll make you shine like the sun
Fall, And He’ll raise you to the heavens
Become nothing, And He’ll turn you into everything”

Religion

I like religion less and less, the older I get. To explain why, let me mention two examples from my own family of Christian faith. The smell of corruption that presently emanates from the Vatican is stomach-churning, and Pope Francis’s attempts to clean house seem to have called forth from his critics, not repentance but denial, dissimulation and unseemly finger-pointing. In the USA, many Christian politicians pander to people’s greed, fears and stupidity rather than appeal to their sense of justice, compassion and fair play. I was very amused, years and years ago, when a distinguished Christian leader observed ruefully that, in the church, very often it’s not cream but scum that rises to the top. Not that I quite believe him. My own experience is that it’s mediocrity that often wins out, with the trivial telling the talented what to do.

Look at the wider world of religions, and much the same could be said. And I haven’t even mentioned the propensity of some religious people to turn to violence in order to further their demented and wicked causes.

I write these words, ironically, upon my return from church. Why, I ask myself, do I still attend to the things of religion?Sistine_Chapel

Two reasons, I suppose.

The first is that I take John Wesley’s point that it’s difficult to be a solitary Christian (or Muslim, Buddhist, whatever). There are many excellent religious people and I find that they keep me in faith and hope and love. They have done, throughout my life. When I lived in India, forty years ago, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Parsees and others looked after me, who was the newcomer and the immigrant, because they had been shaped by their beliefs to love the stranger. Long years later, they continue to inspire me to show compassion, and to want to be good.

The second reason is that religion has all the best stories, and I’ve found them to be life-changing and life-enhancing. As I enter into the Christian story and stories, my life is challenged and changed by what Christianity’s narrative tells me about how to be a grown up in a world where it’s so much easier to be a 63-year-old perpetual adolescent, whining, entitled and angry. I’m not always as adult as I ought to be, but religion encourages and resources me to try harder.painting_1

The stories of Christmas appeal to me most. So I shall read Matthew and Luke, sing carols, read the season’s best poets, and be grateful that Christianity exists for, without it, such stories would never be told and I would be another person entirely. My gratitude will be tempered by embarrassment and horror at those religious people who, noisy as they are about their beliefs, haven’t got the point.

Merry Christmas, everyone. And a Happy New Year.