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Economics of Christmas – Wikipedia

Now that December has arrived, you could say that it’s perfectly reasonable for the whistle to be blown and the retail scrum to officially begin, along with piped carols in streets and shops, tinsel on a warmish sunny day and the release of the floodgates when it comes to appeals for money from numerous deserving charities. The pressure is on to buy, buy, buy.

I say this as someone who is fortunate enough not to have to choose between heating my house and feeding my children, or even between buying them a Christmas present as opposed to laying on Christmas dinner. At no other time of the year do we feel the poverty-wealth gap in our country more acutely than in the run-up to Christmas and in its debt-laden aftermath.

Given all of this, I find myself wondering if anyone finds it possible to associate this season with the idea of hope, which is what Christmas is really all about. I don’t think hope is something you can simply whistle up from nowhere, by forcing yourself to get into a hopeful frame of mind, despite the social and political realities of the day and possibly the anxiety and stress dominating your own life situation at this time. If it were, then hope would amount to no more than wishful thinking. And yet, hope does involve a kind of wishing.

As children, we used to make wishes on a star or, more prosaically, while pulling on the wishbone of the roast chicken we’d just eaten. Adults do something similar. We invest significance in actions that have no intrinsic worth or meaning, like buying a lottery ticket, in the hope, or wish, that we might become overnight billionaires. This is not the kind of hope which I believe is intrinsic to Christmas, although, paradoxically, the glitz and bling of the pre-Christmas season can transform our ‘wishing’ into something which is not unlike it.

Somewhere in the Christmas wishing we sense a deep yearning for something greater and beyond us, if we can bear to stop and own it for even a single moment. From recognising that a wish is just a wish, we move into the yearning I experience in the context of the newly decorated high street.

When we yearn for something, it is often for something remembered, something good that we have known, however briefly. But the kind of deep yearning I am talking about is not sentimentality. Looking back on the magic of childhood Christmases evokes all sorts of good and comforting feelings, but these sentimental memories must remain where they are – which is in the past. At best, we can only replicate them for our own children, but we cannot re-inhabit them ourselves.

So the yearning I experience in the run-up to Christmas must have to do with something greater. It has to do with belonging to a people or family, with being part of the community of the human race, a belonging which reaches back to our earliest beginnings and forward to the end of our individual and collective life. Being part of the whole human race, both past and present, entails a fundamental human longing for love, for a love which is complete and whole, unconditional and utterly real. We yearn for this love in situations which are often rife with sentiment. We yearn deeply, in the flicker of tinsel caught in a passing moment, as we might suddenly yearn to be with a friend who we have not seen for many years.

And here there is paradox. The yearning that we experience at Christmastide is both its reward and its fulfilment. In the moment of recognition of need, we already have the thing, or the one, whom we most need. The yearning is met and fulfilled in the moment of our recognising that it is there. Sometimes, using a special word to articulate such a feeling can be helpful. It gives it shape and meaning. The Aramaic word maranatha allows us to yearn the words of the Advent hymn ‘O Come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear’.

Allowing these words to surface in the midst of the tinkle and glitz of the pre-Christmas season speaks to our ‘captivity’ here, in the affluent West. It speaks to our particular state of exile, to our wilderness. It speaks to us in a wilderness of false values, both commercial and moral, a wilderness of isolation and loneliness, even if we are popular and successful, a wilderness of cynicism and despair, in our instinctive desire to break or destroy those things that until now have enabled us to function as a free and compassionate society. In all of these wildernesses we yearn for the coming of Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’ and in all of them, if we will only yearn with necessary tears, we are already met.  

When Will There Be Good News?

The heart of the post I’ve just written: Our humanity is the spirit that makes us the persons we are. It is the line we draw between right and wrong, wisdom rather than cleverness, compassion rather than pragmatism.

The first thing I read or listen to tends to set my emotional course for the day ahead. By this I mean that whatever bit of news first appears on my screen, and my instinctive reaction to it, will, in some measure, define all my other emotions for the day, along with the thoughts and decisions which these emotions will affect.

Today, it happened to be William Bell’s article in the Comment section of the current issue of the Church Times. Bell’s is a factually sustained account of why we still ought to feel a deep sense of outrage at the ongoing injustices being perpetrated in regard to the Palestinians by the continuing appropriation of their land, and denial of their basic human rights, specifically in the context of East Jerusalem. Yesterday, it was the murder of two young Cambridge graduates by a crazed individual wielding a knife during a seminar designed to bring people together through shared learning.

Many of those who read this post will have experienced similar feelings to mine in regard to the news of the day, and possibly a degree of helplessness in the face of all this evil. But does it have to be like this? Might it be possible to turn our feelings of helplessness and anger to good use, or to ‘convert’ them? I understand this ‘converting’ as a kind of composting, as when biodegradable material is sufficiently concentrated and rendered down that it becomes a nutrient, a source of life and growth for the soil it feeds.

Perhaps our feelings of anger in regard to the events going on around us, not to mention our distrust of politicians and increasing disillusion with the political system itself, need to be rendered down and converted in a similar way. Positive anger may not always translate into writing newspaper articles, but it can fuel hope. For one thing it strengthens resistance, as it has been proved to do in wartime situations when there is a common enemy to defeat. Resistance is not just about defending oneself against danger. It is about being proactive in the face of evil, a proactivity which both defines and tests our humanity.

Our humanity is really the spirit that makes us the persons we are. You could also describe this spirit as ‘will’ or ‘conscience’. It reveals itself as the line we draw between right and wrong, or which defines those situations that require wisdom rather than cleverness, compassion rather than pragmatism. In politics, mistakes are made when decisions taken by politicians are the product of delusion, because they are self-serving or part of a wider power-mongering agenda, as is the case with Trump’s support of Israeli settlements.

The human spirit learns through wisdom to discern motive. So the human spirit is tested not only in how a person or nation responds to the evil being done to others, and to the duplicity and lies of the powerful, but in how that person lives a ‘just’ life, to use a rather biblical expression. Living a just life will involve anger, but it will need to be ‘converted’ anger, anger which is fuelled by compassion and the desire for wisdom and understanding. For the person of faith, this particular kind of understanding, the understanding which ‘bears fruit that will last’ (John 15:16) begins in the life of the spirit.

There is nothing nebulous or abstract about this life. On the contrary, it is a conscious ongoing and deliberate willing of ourselves into any given set of circumstances that are affecting people’s lives. Right now, the greatest of these, and the one with the most enduring consequences, is the accelerated rate of climate change. Getting into this situation, from that place of wisdom and compassion, involves a willingness to become, in a sense, those whose lives are most affected by extreme and long-term changes in climate. It is not hard to imagine who they are. We read about them every day. When we become who they are, when we see their faces from within our own spirit, we begin the work of resistance, because it is in this place of deep compassion that anger becomes ‘converted’, and so changes the way we think and the way we do things.

If we remain in this place, at a sub-conscious level, we will find ourselves questioning our every action, insofar as any given action is likely to make the world a safer or happier place for other human beings and other species. Small actions count most because they are within the reach of all of us. How long to leave the hot tap running, whether to drive when, with better planning, we could easily have walked or cycled, opting for loose vegetables rather than packaged, or, better still, growing your own if you have a bit of garden space.

All these decisions are made in and by the human spirit, but they are only made possible by an encounter with the face of Love itself.

Time To Take Stock

Just about every day I seriously consider coming off social media. I vaguely envy those who’ve managed to make the break. I’m beginning to think there’s a stigma attached to even trying to do this. Why is it so difficult? There are of course all sorts of valid reasons for staying with it and, to be honest, the fear of isolation and loneliness is one of them, but I also realise that being caught up with facebook and twitter, neither increases or diminishes that particular state of mind, or perhaps it does both. Therein lies the confusion many of us experience in regard to social media.

The illusion of freedom that social media bestows makes us all vulnerable – and hence hurtable. We may feel impregnable, behind a computer screen alone against the world, but there is no telling who is out there, or how they will read us, what tender vulnerability we will touch on, wittingly or unwittingly, and how they will reciprocate, when we have taken one too many risks with a tweet or a post, and left ourselves momentarily exposed.

So the media, and social media especially, is encouraging a kind of ghetto mentality, one with which people can identify by being part of a group which will keep them safe, or at least provide support and refuge when what is said or half said hits them where they are most vulnerable. But we are all vulnerable to being hit, or excluded from the group, one way or another. We are all on the defensive. As a result of this none of us is truly free.

As I ponder whether or not to come off social media, I also have to ask myself what this fundamentally defensive attitude of mind does to us as a society. What kind of society are we becoming? Are we truly free? Embodied in the idea of freedom is that of liberality, which also means generosity, generosity of spirit. There is a growing antipathy towards these two ‘graces’ which are often cynically conflated and written off as ‘liberal elitism’.  Bearing in mind that November is the month of remembrance, it is worth recalling the sacrifices made in recent history by two generations in the name of this very freedom, this liberality, this generosity of spirit.  

How do our notions of being a free society sit with theirs? Perhaps it was easier for them to think of themselves as a free society, one which was about belonging together in freedom of spirit, because they had a visible common enemy to defeat. We have many enemies, but they are not visible in the same way as those of our grandparents and great grandparents. Our enemies thrive on isolationism, on the sovereign power of the individual. Without a visible common enemy they translate into nationalism, identity politics and the cult of celebrity leadership.

As a result of this we allow ourselves to be identified with the kind of people who embody our fantasies. We want stardom, because it is the opposite of vulnerability and of wisdom. It makes few demands on our intelligence or sense of right and wrong. It evokes a certain kind of impregnability, often pertaining to an imagined past. But in reality it speaks of rootlessness and of a people which seems to have lost all sense of purpose, because it has lost sight of its own history. It does not seem to be rooted in anything that gives meaning or shape to its life, still less to its future as one of a wider global society.

The celebrity leader appeals to the rootless because, like any other celebrity, he has no time for anyone or anything other than himself and his immediate short-term objectives. Stay focused on him and on his fantasies and all will be well. Celebrity leaders seem to be largely male, perhaps because the male leader, when he is intoxicated by power, plays to our fantasies, and feeds on our complacency, as he persuades us that his objectives are all that we could possibly need or want.

The celebrity leader succeeds through lies and duplicity because we have given up on the real meaning of freedom, on the kind of liberality which allows us to believe in our capacity for right judgment and goodness. We have given up on ourselves. More importantly, the celebrity leader succeeds, and will succeed again, because we, as a society, have little sense of belonging to the wider sociality which makes up the planet we inhabit, and of the responsibilities we bear to it. We have also given up on the infinite source of goodness itself. Perhaps it is time to take stock of these things and turn back before it is too late.

The Latter Times

‘In the latter times’ writes one of the contributors to the book of Daniel ‘Many shall be running back and forth and evil shall increase.’ (Dan. 12:4) Whoever was writing may have borrowed the words from elsewhere and re-worked them slightly to fit the times he or she was living in, times when a people were being oppressed by a powerful ruler. The point of the book lies both in its poetry and in its prophetic witness. Prophecy is concerned with history – specifically, God’s involvement in history and the extent to which God may or may not play a part in shaping it. In the bible, poetry gives voice to God’s passionate love for his people.

Prophecy discerns how his purposes are to be worked out in their life together. There have been many ‘latter times’ in the history of the human race, some of them arguably within the reaches of our own memories. One, perhaps, being experienced right now. There will undoubtedly be more.

If we stick with the book of Daniel as a basic blueprint or model for what these ‘latter times’ might be taken to mean, or what they might look like, we see not just individuals speaking into the future, but whole populations moving and acting. We see migrations and mass movements, the movements of dissent and sometimes of revolution.

Right now, in the UK, we are watching two movements of dissent as they appear to converge on one another. They are unprecedented in their size and remarkable for what can only be described as their solemnity. They are, for the most part, more like religious processions than political demonstrations. Prayer is seen to be going on in at least one of them. It is as if God is not simply being invoked. He is present to the moment, involved in the course of history. In this particular instance I think especially of the Extinction Rebellion protests that have been taking place in London and elsewhere in the UK. But I am also thinking of the one million people who turned out on those same streets a few days later to demand a final say in the Brexit process.

There was a certain stillness about the march which ought to have struck fear in the hearts of the powerful. A riot would have been frightening, but this steadiness of purpose, this silence at the heart of things, spoke not so much of the power of the people pitting itself against the power of government, as of authenticity.

Authenticity is the mark of the genuine authority which comes with what the bible calls righteousness. Embedded in the word ‘righteousness’ are two other words, both pertaining to the character of God. They are ‘mercy’ and ‘justice’. Both of the massive demonstrations we have seen speak of this righteousness. The one in the context of our planet and the lives of future generations, the other in the context of resistance, resistance to a dangerous fragmenting of the  unity of purpose that exists between 27 European nations and that has sustained peace between this country and its neighbours for over 70 years. Relatively few people alive in Britain today have known war, so this particular protest is also a resistance to the price we might yet pay for wilfully ignoring history. The price would be huge and long term.

The purpose of prophecy then, lies in remembering and in reminding those who are prepared to learn, of the need for ‘knowledge’, knowledge being a kind of divinely graced common sense. Common sense is common, not because it is obvious, but because it serves the good of the greatest number of people, rather than of the powerful few. So the first thing that is required of any political leader is a healthy dose of this ‘common’ sense. The two demonstrations that have taken place in London over the past two weeks have been an expression of, and a demand for, common sense, properly understood, to be deployed by those in government or who have the means or the power to change the way we use the God given resources of this planet. So the two events are of a piece. They are also continuous and open ended.

By this I mean that for as long as anyone engages with the urgency of the Extinction Rebellion, and with those who value peace and prosperity in Europe, the marches will continue. They will continue to take place in streets and cities but, more significantly for those of you reading this post, they will continue through the hearts and minds of every individual who consciously abandons complacency, cynicism and despair in regard to both these areas of human survival and wellbeing.

They will also continue from within the life of God, which is neither limited nor finite. Every heart that is concerned with the common good, seeks the knowledge that ultimately comes from God. The bible calls this Wisdom. It is an attribute of God’s own nature, but it is also ‘common’ sense. It is God acting from within the human person, prompting the freedom given to us to exercise our free will in righteousness, justice and compassion. These three stand in direct opposition to the three prevailing evils of our time, the evils of complacency, cynicism and despair. Complacency and cynicism stifle hope and blunt creativity. Despair is about lifelessness and death.

The demonstrations that we have seen stand against this triple evil. They suggest that what appears to be our end, can become our beginning. T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem Little Gidding, that ‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ The solemn coming together of peoples who are confronting human folly and greed for the sake of our common survival is part of a new creation, a new thing being created out of the ashes of complacency, cynicism and ultimate despair.

These great demonstrations of a people’s will to the common good are also a ‘knowing’, a knowing which pertains to each one of us, if we are willing to own it. So we are each called from wherever we are at this moment, with whatever we have to offer, to engage with this new beginning for the common good, to ‘know’ it for the first time from deep within ourselves and take responsibility for it, as a matter of utmost urgency.