‘Things can only get better – or can they?’

by Michaela Youngson.

The strains of the D-Ream song, “Things can only get better” run like an ear-worm in my head as another ‘Breaking News’ banner flashes across the screen of my lap top. Another day, another half million refugees fleeing persecution. Another day, another hurricane devastating lives in the Caribbean. Another day, another location in London is the scene of a fearful attack on ordinary people going about their business.

I was born in the sixties and am part of the generation that really did, until relatively recently, think that things can only get better. The Berlin Wall came down, the Apartheid regime was dismantled, women gained rights over their own bodies and possessions and we marched together to call for debts to be wiped clean for the most impoverished countries on earth. Anti-racism in the UK and the Civil Rights movement in the USA brought about change and I believed there was a broad consensus about what made for just and peaceful society – good seemed to be ‘winning’. That optimistic view of a trajectory of progress has taken quite a beating in the last few years. As the ‘War on Terror’ continues to unfold in wave after wave of unforeseen circumstances and new fascist movements gain prominence even in ‘mainstream’ politics, it is easy to despair.

I put this point to Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, when he spoke to the Methodist Summer School earlier this year, asking how my generation are to make sense of this shift of perspective and how are we to live with the sense of dislocation and disappointment that we are left with. He made some helpful responses to my meandering thoughts, the first being “God is still God” and secondly, “What makes us think that any of this is about ‘winning’?”. I’ve reflected since on these thoughts.

God is still God.
I’m reminded of the wonderful poetry in Isaiah 40. 21-24:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

The Creator is not diminished, God is not mocked (Gal:6.7), by the human tendency to grasp for power. The ‘princes and rulers of the earth’ are brought to nothing in the face of the divine imperative for love. They may have their day but that day is brief, the signs that they ever existed will be wiped away. We might see this as a reason to give up, leaving it to God to make things right whilst we live in a fatalistic bubble, disconnected from the struggles for justice in the world. Yet, on the contrary, a belief that in the end God’s way of love, justice and peace will be manifest, even if we do not live to see it, should spur us on to every effort in changing the world. Faithfulness calls us to participate in God’s plan for creation, to join in with God’s desire for a world where love is manifest. Remembering that God is still God, is a liberating state of mind that reminds us we have nothing to lose – even when the world seems to be going to ‘hell in a handcart’.

What makes us think that any of this is about winning?

The group, ‘club’, ideology I subscribe to is shaped by my faith, my context, my upbringing and the people I choose to spend time with. This is borne out on my social media pages, where I rarely find my views of politics or faith challenged – it is easy to fall into the trap of imagining that mine is the only ‘right-minded’ perspective and that if everyone else thought about things the way I do there would be no problems in the world. It’s only a small step from this perspective to one where I want to change people to see things my way, to win them over – or more dangerously to ‘win’ in politics, commerce, faith etc, rather than to serve God and love my neighbour.

Living faithfully in God’s world involves far more compromise than most of us are comfortable with – the God who ‘stretched out the heavens like a curtain’, made a tent big enough for all to live in – if you’ve ever been camping in a group you will know that the exercise involves co-operation and compromise if all are not to suffer!

I continue to reflect on this response. How do we make sense of events in the world in a way that acknowledges God’s continuing engagement in creation? How can Christians work for change in the world in a way that makes space for the opinions and ideologies of others and when is it fitting to challenge ‘the other’? What are the ‘wins’ we should be putting our efforts into?

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9 thoughts on “‘Things can only get better – or can they?’”

  1. As soon as I started to read this I remembered what Rowan Williams had said….I’d forgotten it was you who had asked the question! It made me realise that we have bought into the “growth” model of economics when it comes to striving for the Kingdom of God – that we imagine that we will make progress towards the “kingdom on earth as it is in heaven” in incremental upward steps. Why should it be so? And doesn’t scripture warn us that it won’t be

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  2. Thank-you for writing your interesting article. In my view the 1960’s was the decade which revealed that progress can go either in a negative direction, or a positive direction, and perhaps we have spent the years since the 1960’s coming to terms with this realization.

    I like your reminder of Rowan Williams’ assertion that ‘God is still God’. I think that, to be able to see ourselves and the world as they really are, in the presence of God, is a great starting point for creating a better world.

    I would also like to add that the issue of global warming has, in recent years, revealed the extent of God’s invitation to us to be co-workers with Him, not only as we live in the world, but also as co-creators of the world. If we are capable of changing the physical nature of the Earth through global warming, so we are also capable of changing it in a positive way as well. Maybe we are being invited to alter the tent itself, in a positive way – adjust the guy-ropes maybe, or even alter its shape?

    I also appreciate your quoting Rowan Williams’ question ‘What makes us think that any of this is about ‘winning’?’ This is a question that some of us (i.e. me!) need to keep asking ourselves. I would also like to add that I don’t think we want to lose either, because in my view creating a better world is probably not about winning or losing at all – it’s more about having a go at living the life of God’s Kingdom of Love.

    With best wishes.

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  3. I wonder if it is because I was born during the forties that I remember the restrictions imposed upon us as we grew up. That we should be seen and not heard; that we should not bring our unwanted children back to our parents doorstep; that being gay or divorced was shameful. Then there were the religious restrictions of the angry God, and the actions that would lead me into hell. I am so glad that the barriers are broken down in so many ways. We need to learn how to deal with our new freedoms, and work for the better world (the Kingdom) which I still feel is very much present. It is present in the love and service we give to each other not only as Christians but through inter faith work. It is present in our acceptance of different life styles and different cultures. The world will always be growing and changing my only contribution can be to serve and love as best as I can. I am encouraged by the many different forms of worship available – like this for example – I am sure the message gets out and glad that we are more able to express what might have been controversial ideas and thoughts.

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    1. Thank you Joy, you describe some of the ways in which things have got better – I certainly need to be reminded of those things from time to time. You all describe serving and loving as best we can – that is faithfulness, which is at the heart of our discipleship.

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  4. Thank you for a really stimulating article. The notion of progress has intrigued me, at a very inadequate intellectual level, for a number of years. I suppose the spark turned into more of a flame when I was studying for a pg degree and realised how several of the staff felt very negatively about the concept.

    As I understand it, the Methodist scholar who gets nearest to a full treatment is the late Herbert Butterfield, one of many distinguished historians our country has produced. I wonder if there any Christian historians who are writing now in the vein he established?

    It seems to me that the two major theological issues are:

    1 What does it mean to say that God is involved with his/her creation?

    2. What is the status of the revelation or the incarnation of Jesus? In what sense was it complete and final? And does the human race even now understand it in its fullness.

    I could go on…..but I will say only one thing. I would rather be treated by a dentist now than 100 years ago.

    But maybe I misunderstand what you are seeking to open up, Micky. Thank you.

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    1. Your points are really valid – what do we expect of God? It might prompt a lively debate about the importance of the individual and our part in the whole creative process. And what do folk understand about the incarnation of Jesus – beyond the baby in manger I mean?

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    2. Thanks for engaging Ken. I entirely agree about the dentist! I wonder if question 2 is the answer to question 1? Christ’s presence in the world as a human being and his presence as described in John 1 is the meeting point for me – where the cosmic meets the particular, grounded human experience.

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