This morning I began the first of a week's sojourn as the guest on BBC Radio Devon's Pause for Thought. Their studios in Plymouth are a full hour's drive away from our home so it's seven days of a 4.30am alarm and trying not to wake anyone else as I stagger out into the darkness to drive across Dartmoor.
I'd intended to talk about reclaiming the miracle of Christmas; you know the kind of thing -- taking care of yourself as well as everyone else and doing what you can to dump the perfectionism that can drive us all crazy. That's pretty much the kind of stuff that's expected this time of year and I thought I could make it fairly fresh and, hopefully, funny. But being in this line of business you have to be open to direction from On High and long before I turned the car into the studio driveway I knew I had to speak out on something far more serious.
So, at 6.20 in the morning, I completely failed to wow the audience of maybe seven people and a few sheep, with what I thought was a pretty controversial message. I said that if Christians wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus then the thing to do was to bless ISIS instead of cursing it.
After all, hatred + hatred can only spawn more hatred whereas adding love to the equation might just move some goalposts. Jesus knew what he was saying, after all when he said 'love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you' (Matt 5:44). None of those phrases, in the original Greek, can possibly be translated as 'bomb.'
Up until Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, it was always the faith of the peaceful, the poor, the dispossessed and those in pain. It was a faith of healing and miracles. After being Romanised, it became a religion of politics, priesthood and war. Jesus was inclusive of all; Christianity became exclusive of those who weren't in the club. And then, with the so-called 'Enlightenment', we lost much of the mysticism that is so essential for profound meaning and mystery. When you lose the mystery, you seek rational answers instead of remembering to believe in miracles.
I didn't ask the listener(s) to love ISIS, or to pray for them as both of those could become a patronising gesture. You know the kind of thing: 'You're wrong but I'm going to love you anyway, because I'm the GOOD one.' I asked them to bless Islamic State.
Blessing them is not to deny the pain or the grief of those whose lives have been ruined by terrorism and war. But there are many of us praying, loving and blessing those in trouble. How about blessing those who we see to be the cause of the trouble too?
The segment went totally unremarked (which was probably somewhat of a relief, If I'm honest -- the thought of a crusade of furiously-angry Devon Christians was a bit scary) and I drove home into the beginning of the dawn.
And, before me, in the sky, I saw the most beautiful sight: a sliver of the waning crescent moon with Venus, the morning star, right beside it. It looked similar to the Islamic flag, the black flag banner standard of Muhammad. That seemed a pretty startling coincidence.
Later on, this morning, the post arrived with two Christmas cards. One was from my dear friend Roger and his family. Roger and his wife are marketing gurus and when they had children, they decided to name them after Gods as a branding exercise. Their eldest, a boy, is called Odin after the King of the Norse Gods and, when they had a little girl six years ago, they decided to call her Isis...
This year's Christmas card from the family is one that Isis made herself. It says 'Merry Christmas! Isis 2015. And it arrived on the very morning I did that Pause for Thought. I didn't stop laughing for nearly half an hour.
I'd say that was pretty spectacular coincidence no.2. Actually, I'd call it a Christmas miracle.