hopeless despair and a neutered santamentality

17 12 2014

There is a time and a place for hopeless despair. When 132 children are massacred in a school, that is one of those times. A friend of mine who grew up in Pakistan changed his profile picture to plain black. It was a truly back day.

But it’s Christmas. This is no time for the hard-hitting reality of a life that can be painful, brutal, touched by evil. Is it? Enforced smiles, kittens in Santa hats and children singing Christian rhymes. Hide reality with a Christmas card myth of white Christmas and roasting chestnuts, of nostalgia and made-up stories and the fat guy in the red suit.

132 dead, though. That’s like all the kids singing in my son’s Christmas play yesterday. Dead. What does Christmas santamentality have to say to that? And this is my greatest problem with the neutering of the power of Christmas. Yes, there’s loads of issues about the actual event, Jesus not born in a stable etc… but my Big Problem is not specifically about that. It is this.

Real Christmas has an answer to the utter pain and emptiness of hopeless despair. Real Christmas looks the massacre of 132 children the eye and says I am God, and I take your pain, I take your anger, I know it is real. Because real Christmas is not dressed up in sentimentality or nostalgia. There was nothing sentimental about giving birth among animals, fleeing in fear of your lives, or the massacre of Bethlehem babies. 

Real Christmas doesn’t demand that bad things don’t happen at this time of year; real Christmas takes bad things that happen and places them at the heart of the story. They are the bloody point. When we take the truth of god becoming human and taking on the evil in our world and reduce it to a twee children’s story with no enduring truth we do vandalism to the incarnation. 

Christmas is not a time for hiding from reality because reality is real and shit happens even at Christmas so let’s give ourselves permission to feel hopeless, to be angry and to rage against whatever evil causes people to murder children, or whatever pain and outrage we feel today; and let’s take that into the story with us, feeling the pain of brutal Roman occupation, of dashed hopes, of fearing for your life as children around you are murdered and your tiny child is the answer of God to your cries for justice and revolution and freedom: 

This staggering God
Takes his first steps towards us
On feet that will grow strong enough
To carry a cross

It will change the way we tell the story because Christmas isn’t a story by itself. It will change the way we do Christmas because Christmas really is every day for us who believe in it. And it is an answer to hopeless despair that a neutered Christmas santamentality can never be. 


Other posts about Christmas:
talking angels and elephant dreams
a christmas theology of political power
the biggest, most divine total blunder (’twas the night before Christmas)
the weakness in [christmas] love
the nativity that needs saving


god, in what sense is this a plan?

20 12 2012

God’s plan to save the world seems desperately flimsy. He seems to be making it up as he goes along. Like in 24, West Wing, Lost, The Killing or Homeland, the plan quickly turns into a catalogue of errors. But zooming through the story with the box set and no need to wait, major mishaps become smaller as they are solved or trumped by a new one 5 minutes later. Jack Bauer will always win in the end.

Back to the Christmas story. Each year it’s like we put the box set on and watch it on fast forward. We’re so familiar we don’t need the words, just join in with the songs like the Christmas airing of The Sound of Music. But it deserves more than that. It’s more complex than that. It’s needs to be read slower than that. 

God’s flimsy plan went something like this.

Part 1: Must incarnate. Eew. Choose a human. Young peasant girl. Unmarried. Pregnant. Scandal. D’oh! Well-meaning boyfriend. Got a trade. Scandal. D’oh! Loyalty. Nice. Census! Oops. Must travel. Or not. Already live in Bethlehem. Do I? Matthew says. Quirinius is Governor. And Herod. Doesn’t tie up. Never mind. Carry on. Long journey. 65 miles. Bad plan. Nowhere to sleep. Having a baby. Put him with the animals. Really? God’s lost it. Poo everywhere. Cows. Stink. Dirty birth. No family to help. Homeless. D’oh! Baby born. Part 1: done.

Part 2: Must tell someone. Choose humans. Who? Shepherds. Why? Poor, smelly, unloved. Untrusted. D’oh! Great. Send the angels. Why them? No-one will listen. Better idea. Tell rich people. Here’s some. Foreigners? Hang on. Astrology. Astronomy? Sorry. Reading the stars? Not here surely. Jewish story. Gentile visitors. Go to Herod. No! Bad plan. D’oh! Didn’t see that coming. Shuffle away. Nothing to worry about King. Nasty King. Find family. Shepherds long gone. Or never here. Keep them in. Nativity looks better. Gifts. Bit odd. Myrrh? Death. Didn’t see that coming. Never trust foreigners. Part 2: done. Just. 

Part 3: Plan gone bad. Must run away. Or not. Luke no. Simeon and Anna. Circumcision. Ouch. Matthew yes. Run now! Herod very cross. Escape to Egypt! Pause to respect the irony. Refugees. New born. Poor. Travelling carpenter. Untrustworthy. D’oh! Meanwhile Herod. Murders 20 children. Erm. Is God still planning? Herod dead. Go to Nazareth. Or return to Nazareth. Out of Egypt I will call my son. In secret. In shame? Who’s baby is it? Part 3: run away. Done. 

Part 4: Must keep quiet. Live quietly. Shepherds long-forgotten. Until afterwards. Mary remembered. Told Luke. Matthew? Heard about strange foreigners. Included them. Joseph? Probably died. Not mentioned after 12. Jesus father dead. Pause for that one. Reflect. What a crazy few years. In what sense was this planned?

it was nothing like this

Take the gloss away and it’s not the children’s Bible story at all. It’s a haphazard mess of cliffhangers and near misses, of bad decisions and thinking on the hoof. But I know what it does say. That when God enters our world he doesn’t smooth the edges for himself, he doesn’t pull rank and take the best. He doesn’t hide from moral scandal or vicious gossip, he doesn’t turn a blind eye to poverty or power struggles, he doesn’t pretend other religions don’t exist and when his plan causes the death of children in a massacre… I just don’t know. What is he thinking? Is he even thinking? Be angry. 

I think I know it means that God doesn’t have a linear plan. If he doesn’t even micro-manage his own life why on earth would he micro-manage ours?  His plan is as subject to alterations as ours. He thinks on the hoof. So don’t get het up about falling off of it. The story of the incarnation is not a beautifully packaged school play where everything slots into place. Right from the start God is working from and redeeming  the raw materials of human experience. Love, hate, trust, scandal, prejudice, life and death. It’s chaotic, it’s fascinating, it’s a mixture of truth and rumour and heresay and heresy and in that respect, it’s a lot like life.  

Funny that.

the weakness in [christmas] love

25 12 2011

Have I been good enough?

Have I been good enough this year? To receive some presents? I wonder what scale I will use to decide. Maybe comparing myself to others. That usually works well in my favour. I’m no Mother Teresa but I’m no Kim Jong Il either… therefore I am good.

Have I been good enough?

Sometimes to make sure we have been good enough to receive good things we draw up charts and lists. Most of these are good things, or at least they start off that way. We might think of the 10 commandments or the law of the land. I haven’t broken any laws, so I’ve been good. Maybe a little speeding, the odd tax dodge and a Blackberry from the back of a lorry but apart from that I’ve been good.

Have I been good enough?

If that is the question we believe that God is asking us – and for many it will be – then can I reassure you that he is not.  God is not interested in whether or not you have been good. What?!? But surely being a Christian is the same as being a good person, isn’t it? Aren’t Christians goody-goodies? Isn’t that what the 10 commandments are all about?

The Christmas story shows us year after tinsel-covered year that God is not interested in whether we are good. Which is lucky because although we might feel we have ‘kept the 10 commandments’, which a lot of people tell me they do because they haven’t killed anyone or been jealous of their neighbours ass we all fall down at the very first one.

When God came into the world taking the form of a human being, demeaning himself and coming down to our fragile, human level, God was saying the rules and the laws are not working and though I love it when you live well and do good the most important thing is not that you are good but that you are love.

Have I been good enough?

To receive from God? You think you need to be good to receive?

If you are carrying guilt that it has been a bad year and you think you haven’t been good enough to receive from God, then think again. The story of Jesus birth and of his life show us that God consistently surprises and gives to people who least expect it and who represent what the world sees as ‘bad people’ – shepherds, tax collectors, prostitutes, unclean people.

It is not too late to receive from God, to turn ourselves to face him and to receive from him.

If you are carrying pride that it has been a good year and that you have done pretty well, so should expect to receive from God some sort of reward, then think again. The story of Jesus life and birth show us that God consistently surprises people who call themselves ‘good’ and humbles them – King Herod, the Pharisees, the religious scholars, the rich.

It is not too late though to humble ourselves and receive from God, to turn ourselves to face him and to receive from him.

John’s gospel talks of Jesus as being the light that gives life,  a light that changes us because it shines into our darkest places and transforms them from darkness to light, whether our greatest darkness is pride or addiction or self-loathing or apathy or fear or abuse or doubt… Christmas is a time to remember God broke into our world in a surprising and reckless way  not that we might be good but that we might love and be loved.

The sting in the tail is that it is much easier to be good than it is to give and receive love, especially God’s love. Which is why so many of us default to trying to be good, instead of allowing ourselves to be loved. Allowing ourselves to be loved is perhaps the hardest thing of all.  That love transforms us and turns us into the best you and me we can be, but it is not a quick fix and it is not easy. But it is worth it.

The weakness in love is it’s greatest strength.

May we be people of the light, people who love and know love, who give and receive love that comes from God the Father revealed in Jesus Christ and living on through the Holy Spirit, people who turn and face God and receive openly from him; may we be people who truly and openly pray O come to us, Abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.

**this is an edited version of my Christmas Eve Midnight Communion talk**

the santa clause

16 12 2010

Father Christmas came to our church toddler group. At least, one of our wonderful ladies in her 80’s dressed up very convincingly! It was fun, the children (and adults) loved it. But how thin the ice we skate on, how thin the line between truth & lies, between story &  myth… How thin the line between harmless fun stories and giving confusing mixed messages to everyone… How thin the line we walk as followers of Jesus as we ponder How To Do Christmas About Jesus Without Ignoring Father Christmas, telling the revelation of God through JC without violating the unwritten cultural Santa clause and spilling the revelation that FC is a myth, a story, a made-up nonsense.

Should we try to shoehorn Jesus in to the event; or have Jesus giving out presents? Or ban Father Christmas? Some would, probably Christians who would ban any sort of fun. So what then?

father son christmas

I was thinking about how Jesus would handle it. He was well known for taking themes and ideas from his culture and transforming them, changing them. Ritual cup-cleaning became cleaning our hearts. Cup cleaning wasn’t in itself bad.  Fishing for fish became fishing for people. Fishing wasn’t in itself bad. Wealth became not a sign of blessing to hoard but an opportunity to give. Wealth wasn’t in itself bad.  Paul took the idea of an unknown god and made him known. Way back in the Old Testament, prophets challenged the idea of trusting fallic fertility poles for crop-growth to instead trusting the creator god; they challenged sacrifice for self-interest or ritual’s sake to instead  sacrifice as part of worship of the living god.

Our faith has always taken cultural norms and ideas and turned them into a way of talking about God, Yahweh, Jesus. So back to Father Christmas…

Maybe Jesus would say that Father Christmas sounds good, but how Jesus is even better. Maybe he would say Father Christmas is based on Santa Claus who is based on St Niklaus, a Turkish bishop who left presents for the poor so they could enjoy Christmas,; and that he (Jesus) is even more generous than that. Maybe he would say Father Christmas just brings pieces of stuff that don’t last, but he brings peace in the heart that lasts forever. Maybe he would say that Father Christmas sounds like a parental bribery method to reward or punish children for behaviour based on old religion, whereas he is full of grace and his foremost concern is not our behaviour, but our hearts. He gives us grace, whether we are good or not, because none of us deserve presents. Or his presence. Maybe he would say that central heating and subsequent lack of chimney’s put an end to the Santa’s impossible deeds but all manner of cultural and technological shifts cannot put an end to Jesus’ impossible deeds.

Maybe he would invite us to take all that is good about Father Christmas and increase it, build on it, grow it.

Maybe he would find a way to tell the Christmas story, including the Santa Claus clause, and it would work.

Maybe he would even dress up and make the children laugh.

Now there’s a thought.

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