Put Christ back into Christmas

I’m having my annual Christmas rant early this year. Every time I go to my placement church, I see this billboard from the train window, and it makes me angry every time.

presents

I appreciate that the majority in the country are not practicing Christians, and I am not suggesting they should be, but for the sake of the environment, the sustainability of the planet, and the well-being of the 1000s if not millions of people who every year get into huge debt at Christmas, can we not stop the rampant commercialisation? Give home-made gifts, give experiences (a cinema ticket, a trip to the theatre, whatever floats your boat), give a charity present, simply don’t give any presents at all!

Christmas is not all about the presents. It’s about spending time with family, eating special food (and we could all rein that in, myself included); it’s about having a couple of days off work (well most of us!). I know the scrooges and the naysayers will jump in and say that for many people spending time with family is a nightmare, they work harder at Christmas trying to cook the perfect dinner, how do you cope with the vegan and the celiac and all the other food allergies and preferences, that time off from work is overrated, that it will be the same old c**p on TV…

But I suppose that is kind of my point, if we get back to what Christmas really is – a Christian festival, celebrating the Incarnation, maybe we can get something out of it, even those who don’t like Christmas, or don’t believe in Jesus, or will never touch organised religion of any kind with a barge pole (often with good reason based on bad experiences, I get that).

God came and lived as one of us. God came and suffered with us. For all the sweet and sanitised versions of Christmas shoved down our throats, primarily to sell stuff, but also to give little Johnny something to do in the Nativity play, Jesus was born to an unmarried homeless mother, in a stinking, dirty, horrible hovel with smelly animals breathing over him; then some dirty rough single men came to visit (shepherds), followed by some weird strangers bringing gifts that weren’t that useful, then he and his parents had to flee into exile to escape a massacre and become refugees. And what about Mary? We never hear about her suffering, do we? Remember the recent TV drama The Cry with the baby that wouldn’t stop screaming? What if baby Jesus was like that? What if the Messiah had constant colic? But God came and lived among us, because God loves us that much. Now if you don’t believe in God that won’t do much for you, but it does something for me. It does much much more than presents, or food, or carols or even flashing Santas and reindeer socks can do.

So I will be celebrating a mystery, the gift of love with candles and music and tradition, (and mulled wine, mince pies, and definitely flashing Santas) but there won’t be any presents.

If you’d like a non-religious version of this theme, click here: https://www.monbiot.com/2012/12/10/the-gift-of-death/

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Silence

Yesterday I went to Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s ‘Earwitness Theatre’ exhibition, which develops his investigation into the political effects of listening. “In 2016 Abu Hamdan was asked to create dedicated earwitness interviews for Amnesty International[‘s]… investigation into the Syrian regime prison of Saydnaya. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 people have been executed in Saydnaya since 2011. Inaccessible to independent observers and monitors, the violations taking place at the prison are only recorded through the memory of those few who are released. The capacity for the detainees to see anything in Saydnaya is highly restricted as they are mostly kept in darkness, blindfolded or made to cover their eyes. As a result, prisoners develop an acute sensitivity to sound.”1

As part of the exhibition there is a listening room, in which you can listen in complete darkness, to aural testimony from former Saydnaya detainees, interspersed with their re-enacted whispers. It is incredibly moving. It almost made me feel sick. In an interview, Abu Hamdan explained that he is “interested in both the use of silence as a form of resistance to state violence and the power in expressing our right to remain silent, but also as a form of suppression, as a form of censorship; silence as a weapon of state violence…In Saydnaya you cannot speak, you cannot cough, you cannot even move, so silence became this extremely physical thing.” 1 Detainees described how they could not talk properly for weeks after release.

I had never thought of silence as a form of violence or torture before, to me silence feels like a kind of freedom, a gift.

After I left the exhibition, I noticed sound much more than usual – all the things we don’t hear because of background noise, or because we’re immune to it:

the sound of my feet on the pavement

how trainers on grass are almost silent

doing a zip up (thunderously loud)

children playing

birds singing

bird wings flapping

wind

traffic in the distance

leaves skidding in the breeze

a distant police siren

the rustle of my jacket as I walk

a man talking on the phone

a passing car

how the sound of a car slowing down for a traffic light is different —

the desire to describe sound more precisely

This did not last long, once on the main road, smaller sounds became inaudible so I could only feel the sound of my feet, no longer hear it.

The rest of the exhibition is an installation of objects used to make sound effects, with projected, animated text on the wall – earwitness testimony from Saydnaya and other events. That exhibition is about sound, but it is silent. A computer algorithm animated Abu Hamdan reading the text, so it sped up or slowed down according to his rhythm and emphasis, so “you feel a voice, but you don’t hear it.” 1

Sound and silence are physical things.

Sound can be used for violence and torture.

Silence can be used for violence and torture.

 

1 Exhibition brochure, Chisenhale Gallery

hope not fear

‘you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting’ so says Daniel in his interpretation of the writing on the wall. (Dan. 5:27) It’s not what anyone wants as their epitaph, is it? Well, it’s certainly not what I want as mine.

Last week at Synod, we were invited to go for a prayer walk. This essentially meant going for a wander. On my travels I met a man from Cameroon. During our conversation, after hearing me speak a non-English language on the phone, he asked me where I was from. ‘Here, I’m English.’ He said I didn’t seem English; I wasn’t like other English people, but he wouldn’t be drawn further on what he meant. I took it to mean that I hadn’t got up and moved away, that I had talked to him, though I drew the line at accepting his kind offer to exchange phone numbers!

Sometimes we to have to draw a line, and sometimes we have to cross it. Later I was reading an interview with Pakistani writer, Mohammed Hanif, on the release of his new novel. He spoke about how if you wanted to write about politics in Pakistan, you have to do it abroad (he used to live in London but has moved back to Karachi) for fear of assassination. He quoted a good friend of his, human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud who said, ‘fear is a line in your head. You have to cross it.’

We all have things we are afraid of and fear of change is real, but we have to overcome it and move forward, otherwise we will slowly die. It is one thing to be the remnant if the remnant is lively, active and creative, it is quite another to be the remnant cowering in the corner watching its own demise.

After I wrote this, I went to the station and saw this:

Tube241018

“A heart that’s broken is a heart that’s been loved”

When my mother died it was her body that was full of scars – a life full of minor accidents and mishaps – the slightly crooked finger from the broken jam jar, and in later years surgery scars; the question mark on her back where a melanoma was removed, the lump out of her leg.

When my cat died, it was my body full of scars; well cuts and scratches. She fought tooth and nail to the end (literally!)

They both refused to eat. This was a symptom of the disease, but also, to my mind, an act of defiance; one thing they had control over. They were both indomitable souls.

But don’t anyone tell my mum I compared her to a cat – she couldn’t stand them!

scarred for life
jam jar that broke
circa 1972?
me on the floor,
reading no doubt

scarred for life
that tumble in the rain
Norwich… 1988?
laughing, in the end
over wine bottles smashed

scarred for life
the ‘secret’ fall
broken nose
skin all torn
don’t worry I won’t tell

scarred for life
tumour removed
skin graft, Germolene pink
long skirts and trousers
hide a multitude of sins

scarred for life
not much more
the question mark on your back
the black mole on your neck
your body growing slowly cold

“Feet, why do I need you, if I have wings to fly”

On my day off last week I went to the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A. I found it very voyeuristic – the artistic equivalent of a pervert rifling through a knicker drawer. After Frida died, her husband Diego Riviera locked away her private letters in their house in Mexico city, saying the trunks and cupboards were not to be opened until fifteen years after his death. The house was subsequently made into a museum and the collection of belongings was left hidden behind the bathroom walls, because the patrons feared it might contain information which would compromise the couple’s image. They were not opened until 2004, a year after the museum patron died.

The exhibition in London, included many things that had belonged to her. As well as clothes, photographs and jewellery, there were very intimate items such as letters to her doctors, lipstick and medication, and it somehow felt wrong to be looking at those things. I found myself wondering, what gave us the right, just because someone was famous, whatever that means? It was a bit like the Egyptian pharaohs buried with all their belongings and then Europeans came along, opened them up and put the things in museums far away. The eerie, melancholy music playing in the exhibition didn’t help much either!

Frida Kahlo spent much of her life in pain, and much of it flat on her back, confined to bed. As a child she had polio which left one leg weak and shorter than the other, and as a teenager she suffered a horrific bus accident which left her unable to have children and meant she needed more than 30 operations on her spine. Eventually her withered leg had to be amputated and she died at 47. She said in her diary:

“Feet, why do I need you, if I have wings to fly”

frida

I came away with a huge admiration for her strength through such pain and suffering, including the inability to have children. And it brought new meaning to the previous week’s reading from Mark: ‘if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet…’

Frida Kahlo didn’t need her damaged, painful, gangrenous leg because it would have killed her if she’d kept it. She didn’t need it because she found wings to fly in other ways – through art, through love. Would that we were all strong enough to throw off the things that hold us back.

Be the change you want to see

Reflection written for Sunday 30 September. (Any Bible readings referred to are from the lectionary readings set for 30/09/18.)

This week I have been at college, in the rarefied air of the Cambridge academic bubble, beautiful yet somehow otherworldly. Otherworldly because it is a place where people read far more than the national average; a place that has a higher tolerance for eccentrics and people who are different than other parts of the country. But also because I could, if I’d wanted, have been completely shut off from the real world without watching TV news or listening to the radio; absorbed in navel-gazing with my fellow students, with our heads in the sand of pastoral reflection and future ministries. But to my mind, theological reflection apart from the world, without reflecting on the problems of our world and community is pretty pointless.

That is not my particular brand of Christianity. God came into the world, became human and lived among us, and we too should live in the world, not in some religious ivory tower thinking we are better than others because we have found the path to God. And not only did God live among us, but in the body of Jesus, God was humiliated, rejected, condemned and killed, like so many in the world today, and yet many of our churches do not seem to care. Many Christians seem to think that praying is all they need to do, but as I said last Sunday, peace and justice, and compassion, are not things you wish/pray for they are things you make and do.

Of course one may think, what can I do? Whatever I do will make so little difference it’s not worth it. But of course if everyone thought that, nothing would change. I have only walked about 125 miles so far in the British Red Cross Miles for Refugees month and if I am lucky I might raise £150 for the appeal, which is not much, but together all the people taking part in Miles for Refugees have walked over 63,000 miles and have raised £90,000. And of course the same goes for all the other charitable events happening all over the country every day – lots of small acts add up to a lot.

You may have heard the story this summer of a young Swedish student who boarded a plane at Gothenburg airport specifically to prevent an Afghan asylum seeker from being deported. She refused to sit down until he was removed from the plane and she live-streamed her protest on the internet. Her video was watched by over 4 million people. Stewards and passengers complained, but she stood firm. She said, “I am doing what I can to save a person’s life. As long as a person is standing up the pilot cannot take off. All I want to do is stop the deportation and then I will comply with the rules here. This is all perfectly legal and I have not committed a crime.”

The passengers eventually broke into applause when the asylum seeker was taken off the plane.

One person can make a difference.

Or as the passages for today from both Numbers and Mark say – whoever is not against us is for us – things don’t have to be done in Jesus name as long as good things are done, and we make the change we want to see, with others and for others.

not accepting

 

 

 

Wellness – what is it?

I read an article at the weekend about the wellness industry. (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/01/wellness-hype-superfoods-yoga-price) I’m as up for a weekly yoga class or guided meditation as the next person, but it seems to me that our ‘wellness’, our health – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual, has become fair game for capitalism. The wellness industry is one more way capitalism screws us over – it is designed to tap into our desires to be healthier, have a better work/life balance, find some spiritual element to our lives, and maybe to live longer (not a goal of mine) and suckers us into buying more things we don’t need. One person mentioned in the article spends £18,000 a year on wellbeing! Another realised that ‘the search for the Instagram lifestyle [posting pictures of perfect poses and healthy smoothies etc] was getting too tiring’ and she actually felt a lot less stressed once she eased off all the wellness activities.

As my father used to say – everything in moderation – there’s far more wisdom in that short phrase than you might think.

The article itself points out towards the end that most of our wellbeing goals and desires can be achieved completely free and without buying anything, simply by applying a bit of common sense – not smoking, drinking in moderation, having a well-balanced diet and taking regular exercise. And if you fancy a yoga class or two a week, why not, but it can also be done at home for free with a YouTube video.

What the article failed to mention though was that a large element of our wellbeing comes for helping others, being kind, altruistic; another element which comes for free. And all these things are encouraged by a Christian lifestyle. At church we are constantly being shown (in obvious or more subtle ways) that we should help others – the stranger in our midst, the poor, the disadvantaged, that we should love ourselves and others, even our enemies. While Jesus may have sometimes gone up the hillside alone to pray – the first century equivalent (for the non-religious) perhaps of having reiki or a massage, or going to a meditation or yoga session, most of the time he was with people – teaching, healing, helping them.

That said, (and as an introvert I speak from the heart!) we do need time alone to refresh and relax, to not always be doing something, but we don’t need to buy that experience – a walk in the park works perfectly. A 60ish year old colleague of mine, told me he’d only recently recognised the benefit of meditation – of the silence to be able to listen for the word of God, rather than the constant prayers of talking to/at God. But he’s only doing it once a week, and it’s free!