Using the waiting

This is the fifth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, each taking a theme from the book of Acts…

by Carrie Seaton.

Paul was a strategist and had decided the best way of spreading the gospel was to campaign in the Roman world’s greatest cities. On arriving in Athens, where he was waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him, he saw how the city already had a thousand years of civilisation and was basking in its former glory and greatness. Becoming a democracy in the 5th Century B.C. it was the home of Plato, Sophocles, Euripides and Socrates, to name but a few. It was the main centre for philosophy, science, literature and art. Although waiting, he was using the time to have a good look around: doing a ‘reccy’ in the market place.

In his book, The Stature of Waiting (D.L.T. 1982), W.H. Vanstone states that the majesty of Jesus was seen most impressively as he waits for three lots of people: his accusers, his taunters, and finally those who crucify him. The ‘glory of God’ is disclosed in this passive waiting and His willingness to be handed over.

As we begin to look ahead towards the easing of the third lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we wait for confirmation of tentative unlocking measures. For many it’s still a time of passivity – when others control our lives, when we have things done for us, as we wait for restrictions to be lifted. If we agree with Vanstone, these waiting times are as important as times of action and taking charge.

Yet in contemporary understanding, activity is often valued for its own sake. Those older people who for so long in the last year were told to remain indoors are the very same as those who are normally applauded for ‘keeping active’. There’s an attitude in today’s market place that to be fully human is to be active, even if the activity has no goal.

However, the lockdown has perhaps made us more patient – a virtue! We have learned to wait for Supermarket delivery slots, online purchases to arrive outside our doors, we wait on the phone. Waiting gives us space. According to Luke in Acts 17, it gave Paul time to understand the cultural, religious and philosophical divergence of Athens. Waiting also gives us the space to try and discern where God may be leading us – as individuals and as a church. Many of the live streamed, Zoomed, and printed services of worship have stressed this point.

Jim Wallis, the American liberal theologian writing in the e-magazine Sojourners, said, in December 2019, that Advent was his favourite liturgical season as it comprises of waiting, longing and yearning for Christ incarnate. He asked the reader: how do we wait for Christ, in not just the spiritual sense, but in a globally political sense too?

Waiting is a key experience repeated through the cycle of the church’s liturgical year. At the moment we wait for Easter with the period of Lenten preparation. After Easter we will wait for Pentecost, and this is the period in which the church focuses on reading through the book of Acts. We may remember that the first Jesus Followers felt uncertainty as they waited for God’s plan to unfold. After the Crucifixion they’d been waiting fearfully behind locked doors until they discovered Jesus was alive to them, albeit in a different way. They were to wait for God’s power, in the knowledge that Jesus had promised to be with them in the future that would be different.

Returning to Paul, he didn’t just speak to the Jews in their synagogues or to the religious Gentiles; he came out of the churches into the most public of places to challenge the Athenians with the good news of Jesus and the Resurrection. In verse 19, they ask ‘may we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?’ He makes the ‘unknown God’ ‘known’ by describing the nature of God and declaring God is not confined to human temples.

So as our human temples remain closed, we continue to make God and Jesus known, through growing different guises and grasping newfound opportunities.

For discussion: 

1. How has the waiting in lockdown been a positive experience?

2. How has it enabled you to positively ‘do things differently’?

3. How have you had the opportunity to make God or Jesus ‘known’ through new channels?

A theology of success for faith-based projects

by Paul Bridges.

The consultant at the faith-based project strategic away day wrote on a flipchart the words…. “Why are we here?” Just four simple words but we discovered that there was more than enough to unpack in this phrase to keep us occupied for the whole day. It asked us about our personal interests, about the objectives of the project, and about our relationship to God, all in four simple words.

I have found myself remembering these words recently, both in relation to my work as manager of a Methodist Charity – Huddersfield Mission, and to the churches and projects that I am connected to. We are all tentatively beginning to think about life post-Covid. To express the idea that things will be different we jokingly refer to this process at Huddersfield Mission, as Mission 2.0, like an upgrade to your phone or a computer program.

In developing community projects, or in our case redesigning them, it is vital we ask ourselves, why are we here? Or to put it another way – what are we trying to achieve? It seems obvious that to be clear about what we are trying to do is a good thing, but community projects and especially faith projects often, in my experience, find this to be very difficult.

Having clear objectives is good project management. It helps us to plan and to access funding, and whilst these are worthwhile in themselves, when it comes to faith-based work I want to suggest that there is a more fundamental purpose too.

Having clear objectives for our faith-based projects says something about what we believe God is about, and about how God works in the world. I want to look at the first of these questions a little more – perhaps leaving the second question for the future.

Whether we realise it or not our faith-based projects say something to the world about God, and much of that message will reflect what we think our relationship to God is.

Are we agents of change for God? Are we stewards of the kingdom? Are we pilgrims trying to find a way? Are we faithful followers of Jesus? These are not I suggest, simply synonyms for each other but speak of how we understand what God’s fundamental purpose is. And our own answer to this question will, I suggest, dictate what we see as success in any faith-based project.

To put it deliberately simplistically…

If we see the key purpose of our faith is to share it with others, to bring people to Christ, then we are likely to measure the success of a project by whether it does this. Alternatively, if we see loving one another as the primary purpose, we will see success as the number of people we have been able to help. Or indeed if we see the gospel as offering a radical social and economic alternative, we might measure success in terms of changing social policy for the many.

I once had a conversation with a senior church official, where I explained about all the good things we did at Huddersfield Mission: our community café, our advice and support work, our campaigning and advocacy. After about 20 minutes he asked ‘But what mission work do you do?” We had differing ideas of what God was about, and I suspect we both went away disappointed.

Even if we are clear about what we personally see as success for a project, the reality is that this may not be shared by everyone that is involved, and therein lies the challenge. If we have not agreed on the purpose at the beginning, then we will find it impossible to agree on whether something is successful later on. Sadly, in my experience, this all too often leads to conflict. How many meetings have we been in where a project is discussed and there is confusion about what the project is achieving? Has Messy Church brought new people to church on Sunday? Has the pioneering minister visited Church Members? Did the Summer Mission make a difference?

The truth is, of course, that we have different understandings of our relationship to God, and no single project can fully express the nature of God. However, if we are to be a community of God’s people perhaps we owe it to each other to be clear from the outset what any faith-based project is trying to achieve. Perhaps loving one another, even when we have different theologies, means not setting each other up for disappointment.

Seasonal Stocktaking

by Josie Smith.

Another Monday, sandwiched between St. Valentine and the beginning of Lent.   I still have the first Valentine card I ever received in my early teens.  There was a boy of my own age in our little group, with whom I played cricket, picked blackberries in season, and once or twice went to ‘the pictures’ as we called it in those far-off days – but he was a boy and he was a friend, not a boy-friend.  The card was actually the beginning of the end.  We had never even held hands, let alone kissed, and we soon went our separate ways.  Happily he went on to academic, professional and sporting success, is now a grandfather, and remains for me a warm memory.

St. Valentine is not only the patron saint of lovers, but it is on his day that birds are reputed to begin nest-building in preparation for finding a mate.  Disney has a delightful scene in the film ‘Bambi’ where the little faun observes the birds going a bit mad, ‘twitterpated’ he calls it, and then the other small animals likewise, as he looks around him bemused, watching their antics.    He is determined that it won’t every happen to HIM, and then, inevitably, along comes a little female faun and he goes all ‘twitterpated’ too.  In the Spring a young deer’s fancy, etcetera!

So now let’s feel the Spring in our own step, and look ahead.  

Daylight is appreciably longer, the Spring bulbs are – well – springing, as they always do at this season, and nature is encouraging us to hope again.   Whatever is happening outside your windows at this moment, the earth does go on turning, and it won’t be long before all living things in creation are visibly responding to the strengthening sun.   Last year I came across a lovely poem in Italian by Irene Vella, translated widely on social media, called La primavera non lo sapeva, which said that Spring didn’t know about the pandemic, so just got on and sprung.    This year is going to be the same.    The earth is the Lord’s, eternally, and no virus is going to change that. 

Tomorrow, traditionally, is the day for eating pancakes (I like mine with a little sugar and lemon juice) before the start of the Lenten Fast beginning on Ash Wednesday.   My father once unknowingly hurt one of his staff by pointing out gently that she had a smudge on her face.    She was a devout Roman Catholic and had come to work straight from the ashing ceremony, and she burst into tears.   My father didn’t know what he had done.   The church we attended as a family – a Methodist mission church in a big city – did not use many of the practices of other denominations.   Indeed, my grandmother used to tell the story of a Spring wedding where the organ was not available for use, and it was explained that it was ‘because it’s LENT’.    Someone among the guests asked in all seriousness ‘Who’s borrowed it?’  

We have been living with the pandemic for over a year now, and with the Christian faith for a couple of millennia, and perhaps it’s time for a review of the former in the light of the latter.   

We have ‘given up’ a great deal in the last year since Covid-19 reached this country, notably the freedom to leave our homes, mix with our friends, hug those we love, attend our church, follow our pursuits, eat together, go on holiday.  Lent is a penitential season.   Not many people fast in these days  (we have much to learn from Islam about that particular discipline) but there is still a residual practice of ‘giving something up for Lent’. 

Many people believe now that rather than giving up things for Lent we might take on things, give more to charity, do more for our neighbours, be more loving.   

There have been all sorts of positives around the pandemic.    We have seen self-denial among people who put their own safety, even lives, at risk to help others.   We have seen people wrestling with unfamiliar technology to keep in touch on line with those they can’t physically meet.   We have seen people raising money in imaginative ways for good causes.   Even simple things like shopping for infirm neighbours, making regular ‘phone calls to housebound people, and supporting local food banks, have all brought out the sheer goodness of people in the face of adversity.    

And after Lent will come the glorious eternal truth that is Easter!

How can we keep from singing?

by Roger Walton.

Congregational singing has been one of the casualties of the pandemic. I am not much of singer myself, but I have, throughout my life, found moments of deep worship when caught up in a song of praise with others.  Like many, for the months of lockdown, I have been unable to experience this musical gateway to the divine.  It is fine to sing along with a group or choir in a YouTube hymn, or to encounter the extraordinary quality of people combining their musical talents from their own homes and making powerful creative art with music and visual images.  I am thankful for both, but I miss the immediacy of other voices in the room.  This absence was especially painful when we met in Church for a time but were not allowed to sing.  We listened to the organ or piano and ‘sang in our heads’ but it was not the same, and, if anything, intensified the sense of loss.

On the upside, my daily attempts to sing the set hymn for the day in my morning devotions allow me to dwell with the words, for I regularly find myself reading the lyrics through slowly, prayerfully before and after my lone singing.  John Wesley would have approved, I think, for his last instruction in his Directions for Singing 1761 (yes, he told us how to do it) is:

Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually;

When I first ventured into a service in a Methodist Church as a teenager, I saw people quietly reading their hymnbooks before the worship.  These books, I later discovered, were, for these devout souls, their prayer manuals, which they used at home and brought to worship, and through which they learned their theology and deepened their communion with God.

Of course, there must be a relationship between singing and pondering the words. For those Methodists of my teenage years, singing and praying their hymnbooks fed each other. 

Perhaps for many Christians, the truth of being part of the body of Christ is first felt when the odd collection of voices in a Christian gathering join in singing. There is a momentary unity that is not only enjoyable but a means of grace and a foretaste of heavenly worship as envisaged in the Book of Revelation, where diversity is both celebrated and transcended at the same time. The eyes, ears, hands and feet of I Corinthians 12 can no longer see themselves as separate or vying for importance but find their place and purpose in Christ, galvanised towards a life of love, as they are bonded together in singing. However fleeting, this is a profound experience.

Music of many kinds can lift the heart but singing the truth about God, harmonising melody and metanarrative, contains a special nurturing power.  Colossians 3.16 urges Christians to enter a spiritual rhythm.  It involves dwelling with the word of Christ, teaching and admonishing one another, and expressing our gratitude through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Growing in the body of Christ, it suggests, requires mind, heart and voice.

Many are thinking about what Church will look like after Covid.  Like the Exile, it has been a deeply creative period where we have discovered new ways of worship, new (ecologically friendly) patterns of doing business, and new communities that want to dip their toes into the spiritual waters of church worship from the safe distance of the internet.  At the same time, we are rediscovering Christian practices, like daily prayer, that for some had been lost in recent years.   We will need to respond to all these various prompting and not simply fall back into what was familiar before.  Within this, we might consider the place and role of congregational singing.  I hope it may have also a renewed place, not simply to fill in gaps between other parts of the liturgy, nor to do it because we always have. Wesley’s Directions for singing recognised that it has significant dangers, if not pursued with the right intent and object.  Rather through careful, prayerful and creative exploration, we may rediscover the deep joy of being connected and nurtured in the body of Christ through corporate singing. 

What is your legacy?

by Carolyn Lawrence.

Anyone who has spent any time with me will have heard me regaling you with stories of my three grandchildren! Becoming a grandparent has been a wonderful and profound experience and has made me reflect on the kind of world in which they will be growing up and the legacy they will inherit.

I wonder what kind of legacy you want to leave for the children amongst your own family and friends and the young people connected with our churches?  Does it involve just leaving them some money in your will or a functioning (and warm!) church building or does it go deeper than that?   Whether we intend to or not, we will still leave a legacy of some kind to the next generation. 

I believe that the most valuable legacy we can pass to our children, is that of faith in Christ.  Even though each of us must make their own decision to follow Jesus, there are some things we can do to help create an atmosphere where faith can grow and thrive. 

In Psalm 78 we read the following:

‘My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old— things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.
He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children,  so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.  Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.’ 

What can we do to leave a spiritual legacy and encourage a relationship with God in the lives of the children and young people that we know, as well as those young in the faith in our churches?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Look at your own life – the best way to prove to our children the value and relevance of faith in Christ is to be a living demonstration of that truth. Children learn more from watching us than they do from what we say.  If our children see that our walk doesn’t match our talk, behaving and speaking in one way at church but living and speaking differently at home or work, they will see through our lack of integrity and perceive that Jesus doesn’t make a real difference in our lives.  Try to live out your faith in an authentic and relevant way. Let them see that even though you make mistakes and life gets messy that you can overcome these difficulties with God’s help.
  2. Share God’s Word – from a young age we can teach our children to know and love God’s Word in an intentional way.  The first place a child learns about God’s word is in the home with their families. Let them see you reading and studying God’s word regularly, have family devotions, read Bible stories at bedtime, play worship music, let them see the relevance of God’s word in your everyday lives and they will grow to love God’s word and value its importance.
  3. Pray with them – don’t just turn prayer into a shopping list at bedtime but ask them what they would like God’s help with and pray together about those things.  Then talk together about the answers to prayer as they come.
  4. Value the church – I know of parents whose children have heard them speaking critically about people at the church and their church leadership and then been surprised when they have grown up not wanting anything to do with the church.   I have also known parents who have allowed other priorities to take the place of worship such as sports and other leisure activities and then wondered why worship is not a priority to them as they grow older and been disappointed that their grown up children don’t remain in the church. Make sure your children understand that the church, though far from perfect and made of all kinds of people, are the family of God and that they appreciate the importance of meeting together in worship and fellowship – even if it is on Zoom!  
  5. Be outward looking – allow your children to see you being generous with your time, money, home and resources.  Encourage them to value all people and to treat people with compassion, kindness and mercy just as Jesus did.  Find ways of helping others and try to engage with your community as well as teaching them to have a global view of the world.
  6. Look to the future – teach the children that God has a good plan for their lives and encourage them to seek God’s will for their future. Help them so see that the goal of life for a Christian is to walk in obedience to the Lord rather than be dragged along by the goals that the world says is important. 

Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and friends: you will impact the next generation. What kind of legacy will you leave?

A Picture of Faith

by Philip Sudworth.

On my wall at home I have a photograph on canvas of a wild elephant.  It was taken by my wife from a safari jeep just before we made a very smart exit.  It makes an impressive picture. However, because this is a photograph – a snapshot in time – there is no movement; there’s no sound; and there is no smell.  This elephant was an adolescent male, who was in an excitable mood.  He was trumpeting a lot and crashing through bushes.  It was a potentially dangerous situation – our safari guide was taking an inappropriate risk; but in the photograph you get little feel for any of that excitement, that danger, that close encounter with the power of the animal.  The picture is restricted in what it reveals because it is two-dimensional.  It’s frozen in time. 

If we’re not careful, it can be like that with the way we portray our faith – it can appear very two-dimensional with none of the depth and the action and the risks and the excitement. So much attention is paid in churches and in Christian organizations to catechisms and creeds that faith is often equated with a set of religious beliefs. Many Christian organizations define themselves by what they believe and only accept those who sign up to their set of beliefs.  In the creeds there’s no mention of love, of hope or of joy, no thought of actually doing anything, and very little attention is given to any of these in most lists of beliefs.

What a contrast with Jesus’ declaration that everything hangs on the two great commandments. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” This doesn’t just ask for an intellectual response; it demands a commitment of the whole person; it requires a radical change in priorities and a new way of life. 

Focusing on beliefs can lead to us playing on Richard Dawkins’ home ground and by his rules, even though he and other new atheists don’t understand what faith is really about. It becomes a matter of intellectual argument; of clashes between scientific discoveries and biblical tradition; of how a loving God relates both to the violence in the Old Testament and to modern day suffering; of what is to be understood literally and what metaphorically and spiritually.  The really important things – the realities, blessings, consolation, the life-changing commitment and the mystery of everyday faith – get lost amidst all the words.  The best evidence for the truth of Christianity has never been intellectual reasoning; it has always been lives that have been transformed by faith.  You don’t find atheists challenging what Jesus had to say about the importance and power of love or questioning the role that faith played in the lives of Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela or the drunk in the gutter who turns his life around, or the despairing woman who finds hope. 

Faith in its full meaning is active; it is about making a loving commitment, trusting and being faithful.  Faith is so much more than an intellectual assent to religious propositions; it is more a spiritual adventure than a state of mind; a vision and a way of life rather than a creed.  Faith is not static. Just as we progress intellectually and emotionally, we develop spiritually.  Jesus’ call was “Follow me!” This must involve movement and action and development. Faith is our personal relationship with God.  Beliefs are our best (but always inadequate) attempts to describe that relationship in words.

To paraphrase St Paul: “I may believe every word in the bible and have a wonderfully thought out theology, but if I don’t have love and compassion, it all counts for nothing.” Faith is about transformed lives. Believing something is empty unless you do something about it, unless your life is different because you believe it.

Lists of beliefs, rituals and worship styles – the things that tend to divide people, which have taken up so much energy in modern Christianity, have caused splits into denominations, and led to disputes and to loss of members – actually aren’t that important. They’re the lid on the box. The truth of a faith isn’t in the picture or the label on the lid – in how people describe their faith; it’s in the contents of the box – in how people live out their faith. [“You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:20)]. Faith for our children and grandchildren will be lived out in a very different cultural context from the one we grew up in. They’ll face an age of ambiguities, uncertainties and an accelerating growth in new discoveries. The rock they’ll need amidst the torrent of challenges and changes won’t be a catechism or a creed but a relationship with God that is strong enough to withstand all that life throws at them. They’ll need to understand that faith isn’t about intellectual agreement with religious ideas about God; it’s the heartfelt commitment to a life of love and service which comes from knowledge of God’s love and creative power that one feels from the very centre of one’s being.  That’s what we need to share with them.  If they do develop that confidence through their own commitment, they’ll understand what St Paul meant when he wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5:6).

Christian Aid

This is the fourth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, each taking a theme from the book of Acts…

by Joyce Firth.

Acts 11: 19-30

It is easy to be impressed by the Church in Antioch which had matured so much in such a short time.  The persecution of the Church in Jerusalem led to some astounding events. People had packed up and fled. They took with them that which was precious, which included the Jesus story.  They went, at first, to their own people, other Jews who were living in Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. Others who had travelled from Cyprus and Cyrene went one step further and preached to the Gentiles of Antioch.

Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem Church to Antioch to investigate what was happening there. Rumours of untoward goings on must have reached them. The mother church would not be totally happy about accepting Gentiles so easily.  It was against their custom and tradition, for they were first and foremost still Jews, with all the inhibitions and controls on their lives that accompanied that grounding: “Don’t mix, don’t touch, and don’t share”.

But Barnabas was able to see what the possibilities were – he opened his eyes, his heart and his understanding to these Gentile believers. He then went to Tarsus to persuade his friend and colleague to join him in his Antioch venture. They were there for a year: teaching, explaining, preaching and serving.  When Agabus brought the news of the prospective famine in Judea, this was their call to action.

The Antioch Church was a community of faith- they had learned to follow the way of Christ and they lived out their faith in society.  It was NEWS that called them to action – news of famine and need.  We know from reading about Cornelius in Joppa, that some of the Gentiles who showed an interest in Christianity in the early days were generous, kindly people.  Cornelius was renowned for giving alms generously.  This is mentioned three times in his story before he joined the Church (Acts 10:2, 4, 31). It is not just Christians who know the meaning of sacrificial giving.

The famine did happen and Josephus wrote of a severe famine that hit Judea in AD 45-47 and we know also from Josephus that Queen Helena of Adiabene (modern day Turkey) was a convert to Judaism and sent figs and grain to Jerusalem to relieve the suffering there.

 It was news of what was happening elsewhere in their known world that led to the decision to send aid to where it was needed and the Antioch Christians rose to the occasion, even though they were barely acceptable to the Jerusalem Church, as there were still those who regarded them as second class Christians. But they responded with graciousness and generosity to the need as it was made known to them. They didn’t hold a grudge and were authentic in their thinking and acting.

Antioch was an out-going, liberal and generous Church and it is where the disciples were first called Christians.  So they did not hide their allegiance.  It was obvious to all, who they were following and why.  They were not only capable of sharing their money, but also of sharing their faith abroad as well as locally.  So in Acts 13: 1-3, we read of Saul and Barnabas being sent by the Church in Antioch on their first missionary journey to Seleucia and Cyprus.

This was a Church able to respond when they heard of the need for food, and they responded, too, when they recognised the need for sharing God’s love in Jesus.

They put their faith to work (see James 2:14). Giving, in this way, lies at the heart of a Christian community and it is broad in its intent. It is seeing beyond ourselves and recognising what needs to be done:  Here, There and Everywhere and How, Which Way and to Whom.

Questions to think about:

Q1. What does the term “to those less fortunate than ourselves” say and should we use it?

Q2. How do we decide if, when and how we give?

Q3. Should we put restrictions on what our giving should be used for?

Books:

Neil W   The Acts of the Apostles       Oliphants   1972
Crossan J D The Power of Parable     SPCK  2012
Borg M  Days of Awe and Wonder    SPCK  2017

A New Year Fit for Christmas

by Gary Hall.

We’re half-way through the Christmas festival and New Year comes around. In these quarters of the city, fireworks have been lighting up the sky and alarming the cats since early evening, and auld acquaintances are feeling more distant than usual. A time of recollection and anticipation has a peculiar poignancy this time around, and I’m thinking about how New Year fits with ongoing Christmas celebrations. After all, the blending of Christmas and New Year is an almost incidental outcome of the mashup of Roman civil arrangements and shifting calendars, ecumenical and imperial assertions, Egyptian and Greek and who knows what other influences, sun and moon and deep-rooted pagan instincts. Along the way, the January 1st celebration has been sometimes outlawed, and New Year has sometimes been on Christmas Day. Or in March. Or Easter.

The near-concurrence of Christmas and New Year may mean little more than a bracketing of extended winter holidays for folks whose lives are not mapped onto a Christian religious calendar (and who don’t need to work the in-between days). So it may not strike many people as odd when Christmas joy and festivity is dissipated, long before we get to Epiphany, by all the toning-up, dieting-down, sorting-it-out compensation for supposed or actual festive indulgence. For those of us who sense the disruption, however, it may be wise to sit lightly to the more punishing forms of new-start, clean-slate rhetoric loaded onto the idea of New Year.

Opting for January deprivations not only curtails Christmas celebration, but runs contrary to an instinctive need for warmth, rest and comfort in the midwinter darkness of these northern isles. I can still be startled by how quickly some people want to dismantle and hide away Christmas decorations in what seems like an urgent dress-rehearsal for Spring cleaning. Perhaps Springtime would be the better season for a New Start celebration. Certainly the Easter resonances make sense, from a Christian perspective. Christmas does, however, bring its own resonances: divine birth, new beginnings, the connection is not complicated. In which case, taking a cue from the baby in the manger, our New Year might be better marked by nourishment, sleep, nesting – or, from another perspective, protecting those who are vulnerable – rather than restricted diets and new gym regimes. Right now, I hazard a guess that we could all do with as much comfort and joy as we can find. Personal excesses and distractions can be dealt with some other time.

As it is, New Year habits break into Christmas festival with all the associated babble of clean slates, new brooms, fresh starts, taking back control, and so on. Surely there are better metaphors for a Christmastide festival. Some are quite central to Christian tradition, such as St Paul’s notion of being transformed by the renewal of our minds.

What if we celebrate a Christmassy New Year with attention to the renewal of our collective minds rather than our bodies or budgets or personal ambitions? If the idea is appealing, and if there is any substance in the adage that we are what we eat, then perhaps we can subvert the seasonal diet-controllers by giving attention to the feeding of minds rather than stomachs, in anticipation of the kind of transformation which tends to come by surprise rather than by programme. Whether or not we are grappling with regret about over-eating or lockdown inactivity, we can decide that this year will be enriched by our ingesting the kind of life-giving narratives, ideas, images, visions and perceptions miraculously captured and passed on through text, film, music and conversation. We can wallow, venture, become immersed in life-giving ideas and stories, poignant drama and joyful comedy through which minds might be renewed, and transformation kindled. As the Spirit blows where she will, daring us to think bigger than post-Christmas diets and premature Spring-cleaning, she may show us the way to loosen our reliance on such insufficient morsels as the desiccated remnants of Second World War ideology or imperial backwash which have too often stifled our collective imagination and distorted our life together. Perhaps we will, after all, be born again, and again, and again. Perhaps this is what happens when Christmas collides with New Year.

Inequality Kills

by David Clough.

Inequality is lethal. That’s the conclusion of a recent report by Michael Marmot and colleagues. It asks why the UK had one of the highest mortality rates from COVID-19 in the world, and concludes that a key reason is pre-pandemic inequalities that left particular groups of people vulnerable. We were not all in this together: you were much more likely to die from COVID-19 if you had a previous health condition; lived in a deprived area; lived in poor or overcrowded housing; had a high-risk job; or were Black, Asian, or from another ethnic minority.

In the past, Christian thinkers have disagreed about whether inequality as such is a bad thing. Some have seen the practice of the early church where everyone sold what they owned and gave according to need (Acts 2:44–5; 4:32–34) as an endorsement of socialism or communism. Others have claimed that Christianity affirms the individual economic liberty of capitalism. But these disagreements seem quaintly irrelevant when confronting the extraordinary economic inequalities that confront us today.

At a global level, we tolerate increasing levels of extreme wealth inequality. Oxfam reports that the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population own more than twice as much as 6.9 billion other people. Just 22 of the world’s richest men have more wealth than all the women in Africa put together. This inequality has grown rapidly since the 1980s. The reason for this is not mysterious: we give assent to economic systems that redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich and allow these gains to accumulate. This results in the scandal that some enjoy obscene affluence while others suffer from malnutrition. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the richest have increased their wealth further: billionaires increased their wealth by more than a quarter between April and July 2020.

Inequality is growing within the UK, too, where the richest 10% of the population own 44% of the wealth, while the poorest 50% own just 9%. This impacts not just standard of living, but health and life expectancy. People in more deprived areas have shorter lives and spend more of them in ill-health. No wonder they were disproportionately vulnerable to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) have identified poverty and inequality as a key priority, and have reported on the impacts of Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, food banks, and poor housing.

One key academic contribution to the debate about inequality was the 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. It argued that societies as a whole do better when there is less inequality: there is more mutual trust, less anxiety and illness, and less excessive consumption. The findings of the book are very likely to be confirmed in relation to the relative performance of countries responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Private property is hard to justify theologically. I still recall a childhood walk in the company of my grandfather, Rev. J. Leonard Clough, who represented the Primitive Methodist Hartley College at the Uniting Conference of 1932. Walking through a wood not far from our house, we were challenged by someone who told us we were on private property. My grandfather roared the opening of Psalm 24: ‘The earth is the Lord’s!’. He was agreeing with early Christian theologians who held that God was the only proper owner of land, that the goods of the earth were for the common good, and private property was a consequence of the fall. The 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, who does not have the reputation of a radical, agreed and argued that taking goods from the rich that were not being used for the common good to meet urgent human need was not theft. The only final theological justification for private property is that it serves the common good. Where there is both abundant wealth and urgent unmet human need, nationally and internationally, it is clear that it is not serving this purpose. There is then a strong argument for redistributing surplus wealth to provide the poor, reversing the current direction of flow.

The question that follows is how Christians can help to shape policy on taxation, public services, and benefits that address the lethal effects of the inequalities we confront. The work of JPIT and Oxfam are important in raising awareness of these issues nationally and internationally, respectively, but their work needs much wider reception among the churches to enable change.

Are you looking forward to Christmas?

by Josie Smith.

It seems that many people have been doing so since about September, with an added anxiety this year about whether or not it could happen normally.

I recall a few years ago walking through a local garden centre in early November with our then minister in pursuit of a quick lunch in their café.  It would have been difficult to find gardening gloves, secateurs or planters, let alone rakes, watering cans and wheelbarrows among the tier upon tier of Christmas-themed objects, twinkly lights, life-sized nodding illuminated fibreglass reindeer and artificial trees.

The minister mused ‘There are twelve days of Christmas, and none of them is in November.’

I remembered this in October this year, in the garden centre again during a lull in the lockdown.   They were busy setting up the Christmas display, with newly-built wooden partitions and shelves making a sort of maze to negotiate, arrows indicating permitted direction, signs on the floor at two-metre intervals, and sanitizer on the counter.   (I recalled a cartoon I saw once, inspired by this sort of premature celebration, with the caption ‘But she hasn’t even told Joseph she’s pregnant yet!’)

The papers and the broadcast media have been speculating since September about what Christmas would look like this year.  On the 19th November in the ‘i’ newspaper Gaby Hinsliff wrote ‘Demanding a Christmas suspension of pandemic hostilities, as if the virus could be trusted to do the decent thing and respect a religious holiday, sounds horribly like an attempt to maintain the illusion that we’re in charge – when the truth is that the virus is sliding back into the driving seat.’   This year has been like no other (though the Black Death and later manifestations of the Plague had none of our medical knowledge or pharmaceutical resources so were much worse to live through or more likely die in) and attitudes range from those who want a ‘normal’ Christmas, whatever that is, to those who say that as other faiths were not able to celebrate their festivals ‘normally’ why should we?

We are almost at the end of the season of Advent, the time of waiting.   What are we waiting for?   What’s Christmas about, really?    Do you ‘love it or hate it’ as though it were Marmite?    When I was a little girl, long ago before the explosion in consumerism, I quite liked (some of) the presents, though when everyone decided to give me boxes of handkies one year I was disappointed.   All I wanted was a kitten.   But the routine demands – that I perform for the visiting relatives, which I am sure they disliked as much as I did, that I dress up in a red dressing-gown and pretend to be Father Christmas, and then, after tea in my great-aunt’s icy dining room, that I help to wash up (my brother being excused on account of being a boy) – made me determine never to subject my children to such expectations.  

Doing Christmas Differently edited by Nicola Slee and Rosie Miles (Wild Goose, 2006) is a compilation arising from the thoughts and experience of a group of eight single people who could not, or would not, be part of an idealised, but often fraught, traditional ‘family’ Christmas.   They met for a week at Holland House, Cropthorne, to create a way of marking Christmas that went against the grain of mainstream social custom.   One anonymous piece, late on Christmas Eve, is from someone planning to spend the day alone, from choice.    Well-intentioned friends and family had pressed invitations, but had met with cheerful refusal.    The day would be spent with the cat, the radio and TV, good food and drink, and a nice warm bed at the end.    It concludes ‘I have seized the day, Jesus!   Happy birthday, God!’  

It’s all right to be different.

For some weeks, the mechanics of the 25th December, and the days before and after, were left to us to interpret, and now new stricter restristions are disrupting the plans many people had recently made.   Many of us have distant family members we can’t meet – and many of us don’t want to take our foot off the brakes in any case, knowing that mixing will inevitably increase the risk of more illness in January.

But as we reach Christmas on Friday, may you enjoy whatever it is you are able to do.   We welcome again, as we do every year, the eternal God, gift-wrapped as a human baby. Pandemic or no, God is with us.  That’s what Christmas is about.