Friday 18 December 2020

The Blessing of Christmas


I once received a Christmas card, many years ago now, with a picture of Father Christmas on the front. But a closer examination showed this image to be a likeness of Karl Marx. There he was, complete with a bright red coat and hood, trimmed with the usual white fur. The caption on the card read, “Even Marxists are nice at Christmas” I suppose you could say that it doesn’t say very much for Marxists if they can only be nice at Christmas. And in any case, niceness doesn’t quite do it when you are looking for a revolution of the heart and the world. There is only a Christ-like love that is capable of that.

Nevertheless, it seems that as Christmas approaches nearly everybody does become a bit nicer. In spite of all the cynicism and disillusionment, now and again, we can glimpse if only fleetingly, amidst the festive preparations, a yearning for that love expressed in the desire for peace on earth and goodwill.

The jingles in the shops, the media and the shopping malls resound (mostly and not very tastefully) with the same message. And what do we do? We bemoan the secular tide of commercialism that seems to have overcome this Christian festivity. But if we think about it another way, we can see, in spite of the cash register queues, the credit card transactions, the online purchases and the apparent superficial exuberance of it all, at the heart of this, in that swarming mass of humanity in the supermarkets and the shopping centres, at the heart of it all, are real people with an earnest and sincere desire to celebrate Christmas with the people that they love. They really do want to bring the magic of Christmas into the lives of their children, not only to give them gifts and sweets but also something more valuable; the gift of Christmas itself, a happy event that can be stored in the treasure chest of memory. Indeed, for those of us who are just a little older, Christmas gives us the opportunity to cast our minds back to Christmases past; spent in the company of loved ones no longer with us today.

Great memories as we know, can become great history. For the past one hundred and six years a Christmas has not gone by in which the events of December 1914 were forgotten. In the words of a BBC Special Report (1998) “It is perhaps the best and most heartening story of modern times”

This true story was of a time during the First World War when the British, French and German Armies faced each other across a frozen landscape of shell craters, of mud, shattered trees, wrecked buildings and corpses. Millions of men faced each other in the trenches. Millions died in this war and those who survived suffered terrible hardships and horrific experiences.

A French infantry lieutenant, Alfred Jobbaire, wrote in his diary shortly before he was killed: “Humanity is mad! It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impression. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!

The battlefields of Belgium and France were indeed a living hell but on 24 December 1914, it seemed as though a miracle had taken place. As the artillery bombardment ended, the guns became silent and the killing stopped. From their positions the British troops in Ypres Belgium, could see that the German troops had begun to decorate the area around their trenches with Christmas trees and candles and through the clear bitter cold night of Christmas Eve the British soldiers heard the Germans singing Christmas carols and in particular they could hear them softly singing Stille Nacht or Silent Night. It wasn’t long before the British joined in because in some areas the opposing trenches were less than thirty yards apart.

Soon they were shouting to each other across the trenches. Then, little dots of red, the burning cigarettes they were smoking became visible to each other as unarmed German and British soldiers courageously climbed out of their trenches to meet each other, to share Christmas greetings and to exchange gifts of whisky, jam, cigars, and chocolate.

All sorts of souvenirs were exchanged including names and addresses, family photographs were shown and a desire to go home and to end the war was a sentiment that was widely shared and expressed by both sides.

The next day, Christmas Day, unarmed German and British soldiers joined together to search for their dead comrades. And in at least one burial service the German and British dead were buried alongside each other.

Along the twenty-seven-mile British line there was a time of peace, celebration, and joy as enemies became friends and understood each other through the bond of their own humanity. Football matches as well as more casual kick-arounds took place. And it must be emphasised that this was not a small-scale event, thousands of soldiers took part, ordinary privates, NCOs and officers, much to the frustration of some the German and British high command.

The Christmas truce ended on Boxing Day, but in some areas, it continued well into the New Year. The First World War continued until 11 November 1918. But the powers that be ensured that the spirit of Christmas and the possibility of peace on Earth would be snuffed out until then. For the remainder of the war artillery bombardments remained constant over the Christmas period, and soldiers were constantly transferred from one area to another ensuring that solidarity and familiarity would not be able to flourish and allow the joy and peace of Christmas to shine in the darkness of war.

Without Christmas or any similar great religious festival at this time of the year we would miss a tremendous opportunity to connect with the loving depths of our own humanity. And there would have certainly been no Christmas 1914 to shine like a beacon over the passing years and generations. A beacon to remind us of our manifest destiny, to bring us home and to remind us of who we really are. 

We who have been brought up and educated in a culture so heavily influenced by Christianity know that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the arrival of the Christ child into the world. If we let go a little and let our imaginations leap into one cold dark starlit night in December, can we not believe just for a moment, that not too far away, this special child, this wonderful gift from God lies cradled in a mother’s arms? Is this not a scene of such joy and tranquillity? as we gaze upon mother and child enveloped in that radiant light of pure love. A light that illuminates the whole scene as the rich and powerful, the poor and mean kneel together and worship in such humility.

The Christ child is born and is born in our hearts, the hope of the world, the light of our lives. From the darkness, we come face to face with the Christ Child, into the light of a Holy presence where all our strivings, our greed and anger our hatreds, our small mindedness, prejudice, jealousies and fears have been supplanted by an apparition of such purity that our very hearts are smitten as we resonate with a divine love with the wonder and beauty of it all. In this moment we know who we really are and we know that this child is every child the universal child, the child in every person we meet. As we meet his gaze through the radiance of his presence, we feel his vulnerability and a powerful sense of innocent, trusting love and we are deeply touched. We are deeply touched because we are not observers, but have become one with him, deeply touched, we are lifted on the wings of angels.

When we are far away from home in the cold solitude of despair of pain and self-pity, we have only to remember the light that shines in the darkness a light transcendent and immanent, a light deep within ourselves, the power of love to transform ourselves and the world.


May the humility of the shepherds,

the faith of the wise men,

the joy of the angels

and the peace of the Christ Child

be God’s gift to all people this,

Christmas and always

Sunday 29 November 2020

The Leadership of Churchill


The Leadership of Winston Churchill  

You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. Winston Churchill 1940

You ask what leadership is? That question can be summed up in two words: Winston Churchill. Churchill was a great war time leader. We and future generations who love freedom have much to thank him for. Churchill’s leadership as the British prime minister during the Second World War. His first significant achievement in 1940 was to prevent the then foreign secretary, Lord Halifax from seeking a negotiated peace settlement with Hitler. In time, Churchill’s bellicose attitude proved to be correct but, in his famous Blood, Sweat and Tears speech, he certainly did not exaggerate the cost. Already I can hear the objections to this well-deserved praise for Churchill. A candid response in the man’s own words comes to mind, ‘I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes.’ The humility to acknowledge one’s own mistakes and to learn from them is a sign of character and character is a leadership quality.

The above few words taken from Churchill’s famous speech have a message and a resonance for each of us today. Our policy should be to wage war with all the might and with all strength that God can give us. We should wage war against monstrous tyrannies that are ever more present in the creep of totalitarian ideologies at home and abroad today.

In May 1940, Churchill’s message was grim and uncompromising and yet it was inspiring and totally appropriate. At that time the evacuation of the British and Allied troops at Dunkirk was still days away. Meanwhile, the Nazis in Germany, Austria and occupied Poland were already murdering those with mental or physical disabilities. It was SS policy to eliminate ‘life unworthy of life’ which in 1941 led to the creation of extermination camps and the Final Solution.

The sheer horror and evil that can take hold of any society is not always obvious. Wickedness on that kind of scale is so shocking and is so hard to comprehend and describe that we falsely believe that it can’t happen again, or that it can’t happen in our own democratic civilised society. But the price of such security has to be built on eternal vigilance. Evil has many disguises, and the road to Hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Churchill remained politically isolated when he said that the peace agreement signed by Hitler in 1938 and celebrated as ‘Peace for our time’ ‘brought shame to England’. True leadership requires bravery and an unflinching steadfastness in the face of opposition. In the storms of life, the true leader will speak the unpalatable truth rather than the convenient lie.

Andrew Roberts in his much-acclaimed biography of Churchill brought to mind the words he wrote on Friday 10th May 1940, the day he became the prime minister, ‘I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial . . . I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all and I was sure I would not fail.’ Roberts wrote, ‘He had believed in his own destiny since at least the age of sixteen, when he told a friend that he would save Britain from a foreign invasion.’

Shakespeare wrote, ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them’. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man, is a saying we are also familiar with, it suggests that at a crucial moment, a time of urgency and uncertainty, a leader, a saviour will emerge. We can debate whether leaders are made or born but destiny follows her own rules. Every individual is a product of history; Hitler no less than Churchill. But to leave it at that would be to deprive ourselves of knowledge, insight and understanding.

The statue of Winston Churchill that stands in Parliament Square, London, is based on a photograph taken of him inspecting the bomb wreckage of the Chamber of the House of Commons in May 1941. The statue conveys an inspiring yet stolid pose in the face of adversity, it reflects the leadership that gave the nation the will to survive, to succeed and to win in desperate times. Churchill’s statue is a silent sermon on an important aspect of leadership proclaiming that one must keep a steady hand at the helm during a storm. Churchill said, ‘If you’re going through hell keep going’.

A leader has to become a living testimony to his vision. A leader’s conduct is crucial to his image. If he wants the people to be there for him, he has to be seen to be there for them, to mourn with them when they mourn, to rejoice with them when they rejoice, to be steady, to be dependable and to inspire hope and courage in times of despair; such leadership is not only required, it is paramount.

There is the notion of the self-made man or self-made woman but who in any true sense is really self-made? Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, his paternal grandfather was John Winston Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, so Churchill came from an aristocratic background but that in itself could not be the single guarantor of success.

In his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C Maxwell wrote, ‘He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk’. Maxwell made the obvious yet profound point that even with great ability if you cannot influence others then, you will not be able to lead. This brings us back to a realisation that our relationship with others has to be based ultimately on who we are. Who we are is the measure of our inner life, and the measure of our deepest convictions. As First Lord of the Admiralty, during the First World War, Churchill was responsible and was blamed for the disastrous loss of life in the Dardanelles Campaign 1915-16. Later in life, a number of other serious political misjudgements would ensure his marginalisation during the years, 1929-1939.

But deep within the soul of Churchill remained that undimmed vision of destiny. Every leader must have a vision, every leader must have the inner resources and the drive to go on, so it was with Churchill, ‘cometh the hour cometh the man’. There need not have been a war with Nazi Germany, the easy thing to do would have been to have supported an accommodation with Hitler and all his evil. Today there is much confusion sown by so-called liberals concerning our past history. Indeed, it has become fashionable amongst a swathe of the population to denigrate all that was achieved during the war years 1939-1945 and in the aftermath. Indeed, in this perspective there is a wilful blindness to the cost of that sacrifice in human life or recognition of the loss of Britain’s position as a major world power, as a sacrifice that was ultimately made in exchange for freedom and democracy against a vile totalitarianism. None of this could be achieved without leadership.

Churchill’s observations on the creeping tyranny of Germany under Nazi rule were true and he knew what had to be done when others were trying evade the issue and hoping that the problem would go away. In Brian Wren’s Unitarian hymn/song, ‘Bring Many Names’, there is a line that speaks of an ‘old aching God’, ‘calmly piercing evil’s new disguises’ and evil does stand before us today in a new disguise. When Parliament ceases to function properly, when laws are made by diktat, when civil and religious liberties are seriously curtailed, when arbitrary rules are enforced, when we are told that Christmas is cancelled, when the police enter a church to break up a Sunday service, when self-righteous ideologues will brook no debate, when the majority quietly hope that the problem will just go away, we need a leader who will declare that, ‘Our policy is to wage war.’  

Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. - Ephesians 6:12


Rev. Bob Pounder

Unitarian Chapel Oldham

Published in News & Views, magazine of the National Unitarian Fellowship,

Photo: By Tim Buss from North County, San Diego, California, USA - Winston Churchill, Parliament Square, London, CC BY 2.0,


Wednesday 14 October 2020

Harvest Thoughts



Matthew 13: 1-9

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose, they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Each year we celebrate "The Harvest" although probably the nearest any of us get to the harvest these days is either to get a glimpse of the hay making or harvesting as we drive or walk around the countryside or as we see all the products of farming conveniently cleaned, processed and packaged for sale in the supermarkets.  We live in an age of relative high technology. No doubt in a hundred years or so from now, future generations may well look curiously at the backwardness of our present food production methods. 

Farming has gone the way of many other industries, with the emphasis on mechanisation and economy of scale.  It’s also true to say that modern farming is a much more solitary occupation. In the past, one of the most joyful and communitarian aspects of farming was the way that the farmers would assist each other on the big jobs like harvesting and haymaking; jobs which needed to be done quickly and efficiently.  The coming together in mutual assistance, the satisfaction of a good harvest and the entertainment of good company; at such times could be bonding and very human.

But in the throes of this reverie or romanticism, one can easily forget the hard work and the day-to-day drudgery of farming.  I should imagine that physical and mental toughness is required when dealing with drought or floods and animal welfare.  In addition, there are other considerations, such as maintenance, animal feed, fertilizer and manure, not to forget the office work, the accounting and the tax returns.  These aspects of farming were as real 100 years ago as they are today and even before then, farming was governed by the seasons, by the weather by market forces and the iron law of supply and demand.

When we look at the discipline and the imperatives that have driven farming throughout history, we can see that farming has not only been an integral part of past societies, but actually the basis for them.  This to such an extent that wealth in feudal society was based almost entirely on the ownership of the land.  One of the great philosophical questions has always been the question of where the source of wealth lies and in the 18th century, a group of economists, the Physiocrats, argued that wealth came out of the soil, from the value of land and agriculture. Alternatively, wealth or value is only created by those who put the seed in the soil, who reap the crops, and by those who process and deliver the food and the finished product ready for the table.  Notwithstanding the grace of God, through the forces of nature and favourable conditions, the harvest is a triumph of labour, of science, tenacity, skill and ingenuity.  The modern harvest stands as a monument to our social economic development to humanity's continual striving to control the environment, to be free from hunger and therefore to be free to be able enjoy life more fully. 

Such freedom brings the opportunity to exercise the potential of the human mind and its imagination in pursuit of goals that would hitherto have been undreamed of.  Without the efficient production of food, without the harvest, there could have been no industrial revolution, no mass production, no motor cars or aeroplanes and no advances in medical science and other knowledge. Moreover, there would definitely not be any exploration of outer space, no mobile phones, robots or computer technology.  It's amazing when you stop to consider the speed of human technological progress and how far it has advanced over the past 200 years. But, let us consider that this has only been made possible through farming and it is even more amazing when we consider that the land that feeds us and gives us our daily bread works from a layer of soil that is no more than six to twelve inches in depth. Environmentalists and scientists are right to be concerned therefore for the welfare of this planet, for our very survival depends on a conscious responsibility for what is after all a living planet. 

In the Gospel of Matthew, The Parable of the Sower  Jesus uses a farming story to illustrate a spiritual truth and points to the rewards that will be received by those who fully open themselves to its message, a message whose seed needs to take root and grow in the hearts and minds of its hearers, but there are the seeds also that don't succeed.  Those seeds fall on the path way, some seed falls on the stony ground and other seed falls amongst the thorn bushes where their growth becomes choked. 

Out of the seeds that fail it is the seeds that fall on the stony ground that most people seem to remember.  Perhaps they are the seeds that closely resemble our own human nature.  When we hear a spiritual truth, or when we become inspired by a success story, we want to emulate it.  We feel that we should go ahead and sign up for that study course, give up smoking, or improve our prayer life. However, something always seems to get in the way as soon as things get hard, inconvenient or when we meet opposition, we find the roots of our inspiration have not sunk very deep and we will know if we are honest that the end of our much-trumpeted project is in sight.  Where there is no success there will be no harvest to celebrate. 

In the gospels, we are told also, that Jesus went to every town and village where he taught in their meeting places.  He preached about God's kingdom and he healed the sick. Jesus was a man of great spiritual insight and he understood the human condition.  Crowds of hundreds if not thousands pressed in on him eager to learn the meaning of his message and how their lives could be healed. 

When he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them."  They were confused and helpless like sheep without a shepherd; he said to his disciples "A large crop is in the field but there are only a few workers; ask the Lord in charge of the harvest to send out workers to bring it in.

(Matthew 9: 36-38)

In the King James Bible, the quote is, "The harvest is plenteous but the labourers are few."  The harvest is plenty but the workers are few. However which way you may wish to interpret this, there is one thing that stands out - there is no real shortage of anything in this rich country of ours, in spite of fear or pessimism our needs can be met and our lives can be fulfilling.  The harvest is indeed plenty, and we should remember this every day, every time we go shopping or enter a supermarket, for we are met with such abundance. Food in abundance, luxuries and other day-to-day commodities hitherto undreamt of by past generations. And much of this has not even been produced in Britain but rather has come from Europe and from distant countries, from all parts of the globe.  We take it all for granted in spite of the massive round the clock effort that takes place three hundred- and sixty-five-days days of the year to ensure that we consumers may have all we need.  It seems to me that in spite of this non-stop twenty-four a day harvest we are neither grateful nor happy.  I often wonder when I walk round the supermarkets and look at people's faces why they seem to be unhappy, I think 'miserable' is the word I am really looking for - how many times have we said, or heard someone say "I hate shopping".  We need to look at our blessings through fresh eyes.  Through the eyes of people new to this country, people who come from places of want, countries that are desperately poor where even clean fresh water for many is unobtainable; when they see what we take for granted, they cannot believe the sheer luxury of it all. 

The harvest is plentiful and the workers are few, the trees are laden with fruit, there are miles of fields covered with golden wheat, a potential harvest alive with the possibility of fulfilment.  It's all there for the taking, but to farm and then reap the harvest is not a passive act - it requires courage and determination, it requires tenacity.  A wayside pulpit once posted outside our chapel read: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."  Opportunity dressed in overalls and looking like work is not usually what we want to hear.  I once had the privilege of meeting the actor and comedian Norman Wisdom; he said to me, "People used to say how lucky I was, and I used to say Yes, and isn't it funny, the harder I work the luckier I get!"

Perhaps the best start we could make would be to count our blessings, to be grateful for all we have and to understand that life becomes more meaningful in the struggle to succeed rather than in allowing oneself to be defeated by despair.  Spiritual secrets are really not ‘secrets’ at all; they are secrets in one sense only - in that people choose to overlook them and that is why ‘the workers in the field’ are few even though opportunities are often free as the best things in life are free and yet often there are few takers. Thomas Payne, the English-American revolutionary once wrote, ‘The harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: 'tis dearness only that gives everything its value.’ Let us strive be the workers in the field.