New Year thoughts

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[One more of Jessica’s, because it reflects my beliefs as well, and is an excellent wrap up for the year. It’s been a very strange year, and in truth, I’m glad it’s ending. I should be home fairly late tonight, so with luck, I’ll have a new post for you tomorrow, although I’m not guaranteeing anything. 🙂 ]

As we head towards 2014, our thoughts tend to travel in that direction: we make (and fail to keep) resolutions; we speculate on how things will be different (and they often won’t be); and we wonder where we’ll be in a year’s time (if we’re lucky, where we are now).  So focussed have we become as a society on material well-being, that many of the commentators seem to think that an economic recovery is the be all and end all of existence; it is as though a form of utopia would be “can be we all go back to spending like it was 2007”.  As someone who didn’t spend a great amount then, it isn’t that specific aspect which bothers me, it is the poverty of aspiration.

I sometimes wonder to what extent this concentration of material things is a function of our societies forgetting about God, or thinking He must be confined to the private sphere?  It is easy enough (which is why it gets done so often) to focus on the bad things which came from a time when society was more Christian: the intolerance of other views; the attempts to force belief on others; the narrow-mindedness of some believers, and the like; it is little use pointing out that these features were also to be found in non-Christian societies and seem to be art of mankind’s development (where it does develop); those who wish to blame Christianity for the world’s ills will do so regardless of the evidence. But there is another side to it all. The values which Christianity espouses are about personal responsibility but also altruism: you take responsibility for your own sins, but you are saved by God’s mercy; you are part of a Christian family, and you have responsibilities to others; you are not better than others, but others are no better than you: at your worst you are a sinner; at your best you are also made in God’s image. Redemption is always possible. No one is so bad God cannot save them; no one is so good that they do not need God’s forgiveness.

All of that gives a focus to life which takes us beyond narrow definitions of self-interest, and which helps put material wealth in a proper perspective. There’s nothing in Christianity which says money is wrong; there’s a great deal which says that loving money more than people is very wrong; it is bad for you and bad for the society of which you are a part. The moment you begin to regard another human being as somehow instrumental in a search for personal wealth, whatever you may gain, you are losing your soul.  Christianity has been responsible for education and social and health care long before civil society took an interest in such matters; it has inspired some great art and architecture. It is easy enough (and therefore often done) to think that a Church should simply sell off anything that can be sold to feed the poor, but that ignores so much about the motive for the art and architecture, and it betrays an attitude towards religion which comes from the purely material world.

Men and women have given of their gifts freely to God and His service, and some of these have been great artists and architects. They take us beyond the realm of the everyday to visions of what can be, they raise our eyes above the horizon of the possible towards what could be. It is good for the human spirit to have that, as it is good for it to repent of sin and to help others; all of these are part of what it is to be really human.  In losing these dimensions, our modern society threatens to shrink our world to the merely possible and the expedient. It was not thus that mankind advanced, nor will it be thus it advances further.

Hope?

Gladstone quote

[Many of us here in America are very hopeful that Donald Trump will take a start on ‘Draining the Swamp’. I surely am. But I, like many of you, am wary, I have long since learned to not put my hope in princes, either in business or, perhaps especially, in politics. So we’ll see. Back in 2013 Jessica addressed this, and her words are still very valid. Neo]

One of the worst things about the state of our politics is the devaluing of one of its main currencies – hope. When politicians make a fetish of ‘hope’ they are setting both themselves and us for a disappointment. Whatever some people believe, the number of things which the State can actually solve for us is limited. Not all the attempts of the British Welfare State have eliminated poverty, even though the State takes 40% of all incomes above £32k (45% if you earn over £150k), and we all pay 12% of our income toward the National Health Service.  There does not exist a State which has disproved Christ’s dictum that the ‘poor are always with us’, although there exist some where we have effectively nationalised charity in as far as we think it is up to the State to deal with those who have fallen into misfortune.  This is a bad idea, as such people rarely have the command of the Welfare State system possessed by those who live off it much of the time.  It ends up with a situation where newspapers can easily enough find ‘scroungers’ and end up stigmatising whole groups of people, most of whom do not fall into this category, and who end up being at the sharp end of knee-jerk reactions when politicians need to play to the gallery. In this sort of politics, everyone loses, including the State itself, which falls below the level it would expect of any of its citizens with a sense of decency.

But it seems that inflation has taken a real hold. Party X feels obliged to turn up the rhetoric of hope because if it tells anything like the truth, Party Y will criticise it for not having faith in the nation, and promise that hope the other one failed to; it is a bad situation, and one in which we, as the electorate in some way collude.  But such an inflation leads only to a deflation of the very currency of ‘hope’ itself, and it makes us cynical and distrustful.  But quite how one persuades politicians not to debauch this currency is something no one has yet found an answer to.

Of course, to some extent, all democratic politics has at its heart the problem of how you both get a majority of voters to choose you and maintain your integrity, and we probably go badly wrong if we imagine there was a time when it was easy. Many British observers of democratic politics in America in the nineteenth century were appalled at what they thought of as its venality – but as Gladstone once said “there are millions of hard hands to rule and force is not an option”.  His own route was to try to educate the electorate and to appeal to its higher instincts – something his great opponent, Disraeli, eschewed as he tended to go for the lowest common denominator.

At some level, however, our politicians need to capture something of that Gladstonian instinct that nothing which is morally wrong can be politically right, even if it is politically expedient.  But, as our societies discovered with finance and inflation, it is tempting just to print more money and leave it to the next generation to sort it out; but the problem with that is it just gets worse and therefore harder to cure. One of the great achievements of the Thatcher-Reagan era was to bring down financial inflation; we need their like to do the same with rhetorical inflation.  If this fails to happen, then I wonder what future there is for democracy as we know it?

The day after

John Keble

[Another one of Jessica’s wonderful posts, this one from last year. Neo]

Secular Christmases, like our lives in general, have a great build up to important events, quite often the event itself does not quite live up to it, and then the day after is a bit of a let-down – and that’s where we are now!  I did think of letting everyone have a day off my musings as a late present, but I promised dear Neo that I would fill the gap, and in thinking about this, it hit me that there is a parallel with our religious life. For those who have had a conversion experience, is there the same sort of anticlimactic feeling, or does the new life into which you are born supersede this? I’d be interested in hearing.

I’ve never had a conversion-experience. From my earliest memories of Sunday school as a little girl, it all made sense to me; God is there, and I have never felt he was not; even when he seemed far away, I knew it was me who was far off, not him – and he was always holding out his hands to receive me when I stopped being a brat. I know some here, and elsewhere, who have had the experience of ‘lapsing’ and coming back, but again, my life has been more mundane. That’s why it would be interesting to hear from you if you have been through a conversion about what happened next.

In many ways, we like dramatic moments in our lives, and we may even need them as an antidote or corrective to the mundane nature of much of what happens to us everyday. But is that the right way to respond to what God has given us? My beloved John Keble provided quite another way of looking at this in a poem written in 1822 which is now a hymn which includes two wonderful closing verses, which are our present on this day after the Christ Mass:

The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we ought to ask, —
room to deny ourselves, a road
to bring us daily nearer God.

Prepare, O Lord, in your dear love,
for perfect life with you above;
and help us, this and every day,
to live more nearly as we pray.

He suggests that we can ‘hallow’ – that is make holy – even the meanest thing we do if we will do it for God. There is nothing, however humble it is, that cannot be done well in God’s name – and that can include resting from our labours.

As some of you will know I have not been very well, and for a time it was thought that I might not get well again. I moved from a time of immense busyness through to one of complete inaction – and I’d imagine that the ‘bends’ which deep-sea divers get could be a bit like that – the sudden absence of pressure makes one dizzy and ill. Our modern life – with the Internet ever there – does but little to prepare us for quietness and reflection. That’s why a well-spent Advent can be a blessing because it helps prepare us for the sudden cessation – even if for many it is replaced by another sort of activity at Christmas.

One feature of the way in which Advent has all but disappeared as a concept in our society is that we miss the way it paves the way for Christmas. Advent, in the church, is a time of penitence and waiting, which is then succeeded by the joy and the feasting of Christmas – all the way through to the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. But I see now that even clergy, after the climactic events of Christmas day itself, take time off and see this as an opportunity for their own holiday. I can see why, but think it a shame, because we have just entered a time of celebrating the most important event there will ever be. So, here at Neo’s, we’ll be remembering some of those celebrations which seem to becoming lost. Christmas is the beginning of our thankful celebrations – not the end. It is a time for giving thanks. And for those of us still clearing up – I recommend Keble’s lines.

Christmas

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[ One of Jessica’s best from 2013]

Well, Neo and I are both, in our ways, in the bosom of our families, and we both hope that you are too – but perhaps like us, you are just looking at that Reader in the intervals of good cheer and fellowship. We are all, of course, extremely fortunate, and when you think of the many Christians in the Holy Land and its environs who live in fear, it makes you glad for what you have – but sorrowful for them; it puts our woes into perspective.

We are so used to Christianity that we tend to think of it as our religion in the sense that it is something of the West – which is in a way a tribute to our Faith. It has spread across the globe, and it has adapted itself to so many different cultures because it appeals to something we all have in common – a sense of brokenness, of incompleteness, of loss and separation. In Jesus, God speaks to us directly. This is not some voice from on High, not even a burning bush or a vision; no, it is a man, one like us who was, nonetheless, the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Men and women like us met Him, talked with Him, saw Him die – and rise again from the dead after three days. The Apostle Paul tells the doubters that more than five hundred people, including many known to his listeners, had seen the Risen Lord. He was not born in a Palace, and he didn’t wear fancy clothes, nor did he use complicated words and ideas – no, he talked to us as one of us. He told us something so simple that even after all this time we have trouble with it: we need to repent, we need to confess He is Lord, and we need to follow Him – and we’re saved. How hard is that?

It turns out it is very hard. Men have needed to see more than that. Surely there are conditions, catches, things we ought to do or else? The earliest Christians were Jews, and they took their Temple-style worship with them when they left the synagogues; used to solemn ritual, they kept it. Many Christians have done so to this day, and as one whose Church uses incense and icons, I am not going to say anything bad about it, because it all helps me worship; but I know it is an additional extra; something God-given, to be sure – but if I never saw an icon again, it would make no difference to God’s love for me.

It is to that love we all respond. Jesus told us to call God “abba”, which is, in the Aramaic, something akin to “Daddy”.  We can have all sorts of dressing up games with Daddy, and we can be safe because we know Daddy loves us. It is that sort of child-like faith Jesus tells us we need.

In this world of sin and sorrow, we cannot but be fearful, not least at the moment, for our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land and its neighbours, and I hope that if we have a few dollars to spare, we can give something to one of the many charities which are doing the Lord’s work among the oldest Christian communities in the world. At the first Christmas time there were many families suffering from the brutality of a tyrant called Herod, who, like all such, abused his position and authority, and for what?  Whatever earthly pleasures he may have had, he has left a name which is a stench in the nostrils of history, whereas the son of Mary, the wife of the carpenter from Nazareth, has the name above all names, at which every knee should bow. In His name, perhaps especially at this season, we should give something to those refugees treading the road that he and his mother and St Joseph trod.

From Neo and myself, warmest greetings – and may the peace and joy of the Christ child be with you now, and forever.

Fairy Tales for adults

[This is another one of Jessica’s, from last year. It was a song that I was not familiar with, but I fell in love with it when she presented it. And you know, this year it means even more to me. As I’ve said, I miss Jess’ presence terribly this year and if that weren’t enough, one of my nieces lost her husband a few days ago to a heart attack, out of the blue. So if you don’t mind, I’ll dedicate this to missing friends and family. Neo]

One of the songs that marks Christmas for me is ‘Fairy Tale of New York’, with the Pogues and the wonderful Kirsty MacColl; if I ever wanted to be anyone but me, it was Kirsty. I remember asking my daddy why he couldn’t marry her because she would make a good mum – he laughed and said ‘she’s already taken little one’; seemed a good idea to me – fathers, let the tiniest obstacle get in the way 🙂

It’s an odd Christmas song, but it is a powerful one, because, in part it reflects a version of the immigrant experience which fails to make it into the Hollywood version. The two characters are Irish immigrants, not too long out of the ‘awld country’ – he still says ‘happy Christmas babe’ (an American would surely say “merry Christmas”? She still uses the English vulgarity “happy Christmas my arse” rather than the American “ass”. Their dreams have soured – he’s in the drunk tank on Christmas Eve, and she hopes it is their last time. There is a sadness, the sadness that accompanies the death of any relationship. But is it dead? One of the reasons – apart from powerful lyrics and a great performance, it still works, is that like all good fiction, it doesn’t tell you what you’d like to know – it leaves loose ends and inferences you could read any way you liked.

So, when he says ‘I could have been someone’, she says cynically. ‘well so could anyone’, but his reply to her claim that he took her dreams away is heartbreaking in its vulnerability – ‘I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own, can’t make it on my own, built them round you’. What a world there is in all of that, of young love frustrated, of ambition broken by circumstances, but also of the hope that springs eternal in the human heart – and the American dream.

Isn’t that what America is really about? That vision, that idea? Has there ever been a country founded on an idea of hope? Has there ever been such a hodge-podge of immigrants all battling and hoping, some falling, some rising, but however low you fall, always with the hope of rising? Is that why so many now feel a sense of despair – as though those times are gone?

I’m only a Welsh girl living far away, and probably, like Shane MacGowan, with a vision of America shaped by the movies, but I’d like to think that, just like the couple in the song, the fairy tale has a happy ending – and, of course, if it isn’t a happy ending, it isn’t the end yet.

For Christians, we are all ‘someone’ – beloved of God, in whose image we are made, and there is, in that, a reassurance. It is no accident – I think – that it was Christians from the West who had the vision and courage to create a great nation out of the wilderness they encountered. The ‘Shining city of a hill’ was their inspiration – and remains one for many Americans – however much secularists try to replace that dream with their own fairytales.

Good music and poetry (and good lyrics are poetry) have the power to transform things and to take us places in our imagination – and here, in a few short verses, we can see something profound about the immigrant – and the American experience – encapsulated. Either that, or I just have a vivid imagination – either way – something to share with all you wonderful people here at this season.

Ordinary Joes

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I’m going to talk about the upcoming Presidency some this week, and I think Jessica, in this post, speaks to part of the reason Trump won, and I thought it more reasonable to simply repost her article, than to extensively quote from it. We will be looking at some of the reasons but it surely looks to me like one of them is that Trump simply feels ‘real’ to those of us outside the Beltway.

Another thing that I see, is something else she spoke about several times, quite a few of our early presidents were wealthy men, Washington amongst them, who because they had no need for more money, were incorruptible. Of course, there are those, and I think the Clintons among them, for whom enough is never enough, but that isn’t universal.

The third obvious theme is that Trump quite obviously loves America, as we do, and as most of the left seems not to. Trump may or may not be a Christian as we understand the term, but it seems that at a minimum he is willing to accept that we Christians have some valid points, and perhaps that it is our morals that built this country into what it has become. We’ll see, I suppose, and here’s Jessica. Neo.

On my own blog yesterday I wrote a post on St. Joseph – ‘an ordinary Joe’. I hope no one finds it in poor taste to call a Saint that, but for me, that’s the point of him for us other ordinary folk. Neo here speaks, like so many of those who post here, as one of ‘we the people’. From where I sit a long a way aways, the problem I see is the one you guys have – no one is listening to Ordinary Joes.  We, like you, have a bunch of Fancy Dans, guys and gals for whom politics is everything and who get a good living from it; but like you, we don’t think they understand us – or even want to.

The politicians aren’t like us – they are obsessed with politics for a start. Through my co-author I know a few professional politicians, and when they come home they are full of who is ‘in and who is ‘out’ and what job x is getting, or who y is sleeping with; they are fixated on the process. Perhaps they weren’t all like this, and of course, we know they are not and that there are some, like Rebecca Hamilton, who set the most marvelous example; but do these politicians prosper in their profession? How many of them get to ‘the top’?

When that smooth-talking guy Tony Blair wooed us UK voters, I was in my teens, and because I am not easily impressed by such guys, I kept a tight hand on my virtue; I wish others had, as he thoroughly debauched the economy and political life. He rode the great tide of easy money and he made the sorts of promises which seducers to innocent young ladies; but when she woke up and found herself pregnant, where was he to be found? Why, nowhere, he’d found another mistress – money.

There was a time when politicians paid to be politicians because they were wealthy enough to spend their own money on public life. Men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were not plutocrats or millionaires, but they had enough and they loved off it and served the Republic. Even very recently, someone like Harry S Truman could leave public office no wealthier than he entered it. Over here the other successful Labour leader, Clement Attlee, had his wife drive him round when he campaigned against the great Winston Churchill in 1945. They used to stop by the side of the road and have a picnic, and then she’s drive Clem off to give a speech somewhere. He, too, left office no richer than he had entered it.

Ordinary Joes could relate to Harry S or Attlee. No one had to agree with their politics, and they could be nasty ‘sobs’ when they wanted, but they were like us – they lived in the world we lived in. Attlee looked like a provincial bank manager, Truman-like he ran a drapers store or sold dry goods. When Attlee was pictured smoking a pipe it was because he smoked a pipe; when his later successor, Harold Wilson was so pictured, it was because it was a good ‘image’; made him look down to earth and one of the people, even when he wasn’t.

But hey, at least back then they wanted to look like us. Now they don’t care, they flaunt their wealthy connections and their jets and their privilege. Nothing is too good for the representatives of the people. Shame about the people themselves – where’d it all go wrong?

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