Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ich habe genug

Christmas cards! You know: those things you send and receive once a year from people you haven’t met for ages. “We really must meet up in 2012.” Not a hope! When you get to my age there’s always the risk that one of the people you send a card to will be dead before it arrives.

It’s no wonder that in the far off days before antibiotics, Charles Wesley should write a hymn for the New Year which began on a note of slight surprise, “And are we still alive?” !

In April 1911 my grandmother, the wife of a Moravian missionary in Jamaica, was in this country bringing two of her sons (including my father) to the church’s boarding school near Leeds. She wrote a letter to her husband back in Jamaica giving him news of the boys who were already here and asking after those she had left behind with their father. They had seven sons by then and she was pregnant with the eighth. She did not know (communication being what it was in those days) that, when she posted the letter, her husband was already dead.

Enough already. Happy Christmas!! Who needs presents other than this gift – to be gloriously alive!

The old man takes the baby in his arms and sings softly:
Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace .....

The old man is Simeon. The baby he holds is Jesus, the gift of life, even to an old man on the point of death.

Nearly 1700 years after Luke wrote that song (or put it in his gospel at any rate) Johan Sebastian Bach, has the same cameo in mind as he writes a cantata in which Simeon begins with the words: ich habe genug – I have enough.

My children complain that I am difficult to buy Christmas presents for because there’s not a lot that I really want. I have the gift of life, both in the simple literal sense of being alive as well as the spiritual sense of being aware of that profound presence we call God. Ich habe genug.

If we human beings are to survive on this fragile planet, ich habe genug is the attitude we must cultivate. And thank God for the glimmering of hope just kindled at the Durban conference on climate change.

If we are to work towards a more just society, ich habe genug is the attitude we have to discover – bankers, financiers and politicians as well as trades unionists and urban rioters.

It is the failure to grasp the wonder and beauty of this Christmas gift of life in its most profound sense that leads to inequality and injustice.

We are used to complaining about the commercialisation of Christmas and I’ve watched it developing within my lifetime. But it’s not just Christmas, nor is it exactly commercialisation. There’s nothing wrong with commerce. It is the consumerisation of human beings. It has happened because our capitalism depends on a feeling that I do not have enough. There is therefore a sense in which we get the kind of capitalism we want/deserve. As the Chief Rabbi said in Monday's Times, “Instead of the market being framed by moral principles, it comes to substitute for moral principle. If you can buy it, negotiate it, earn it and afford it, then you are entitled to it – as the advertisers say – because you’re worth it.”

And we were more or less happy with the set up so long as we felt that our worth depended on it; so long as there was enough in the kitty to go on trying to bolster our worth in this consumer way. Suddenly it’s all gone pear shaped and people are getting anxious, cross, envious of those who get more than ‘their fair share’.

In a recent meeting of our Beyond Words group we looked at the similarities between England in the 14th century and now:
Wat Tyler led the peasants revolt against the flat rate poll tax. At one stage rioters took control of London. Tyler’s collaborator, John Ball wrote: “... the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall do till everything be common and that there be no villeins nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that lords be no greater masters than we be.” (He could have been camping outside St. Paul’s Cathedral!)
There were catastrophic harvests; oh! and there was trouble with Europe!! The hundred years war started. (Perhaps it’s still going on!!?)

And in the midst of it all small groups, mostly of women, in north Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and here in England, were struggling to find oneness with God in that time of great dislocation. Among them was Julian of Norwich who spoke of a God in whom there is no wrath and a Christ who dwells peaceably at the centre of the human soul. Like Simeon she understood the gift of life.

Wir haben genug. We have enough. Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Who am I?

Mark Zuckerberg was talking about his Facebook on television last night: such energy, enthusiasm and all-American confidence, not to mention total dedication to a vision! You might say he fulfils Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s definition of chastity: the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal. Chastity in this sense can serve all sorts of ends and his make me vaguely uneasy. What began as a college website helping young people get to know each other could next year be floated on the stock exchange as a commercial business worth millions of dollars. Why might it be so valuable? Because it’s a web site on which millions of us around the globe reveal personal details about ourselves and these details are valuable to advertisers. The possibility of tailoring adverts precisely to my personal tastes and interests must be very tempting to businesses that want to sell me things. People reveal astonishingly personal details on Facebook because, apparently, they trust Mark Zuckerberg. Already some employers have stumbled on the possibility of discovering truths about potential employees which might not be revealed in interviews.

The source of my unease with Mark Zuckerberg’s vision lies in the question: Who am I and how do I relate to other people? Trawling through this blog, or looking at my profile, you can unearth clues and hints about me and my life, but does that mean you know me? Can you ever really know me if you have never met me, seen how my body language enhances (or contradicts) what my voice is saying: how, indeed, the very tone of my voice can contradict or enhance the words I am uttering. How much detail about my life do you actually need, before you can say, ‘I really know him’? Can you ever penetrate the mystery of who I am?

Then it gets scary. Can you ever penetrate the mystery of who you are yourself? All the major religions answer, no you cannot; not at least by gathering ever more information; not by emphasising the roles you play, the job you do, the things that interest you and so on and so on. The truth about us lies beyond, beneath all this and cannot be contained in lists of information. But it’s a scary truth because all information about us seems to add up to a sense of who we are. If we let it all go we feel naked, lost, vulnerable.

The diarist Anais Ninn used to start each day by saying to herself, ‘I am nothing. I have nothing. I want nothing.’ She did so because she wanted to begin each day in an attitude of hopeful, expectant waiting. She was pretty close to the challenge of Jesus of Nazareth: if you want to be a follower of mine leave your self behind. Such a self emptying reveals the abundance of the universe (or God if you wish) which lies hidden beneath all the information we think we need about ourselves and others.

Facebook and all the other social websites are wonderful tools but let’s not get carried away by inflated ideas about their potential for us mysterious and infinitely rich human beings who need each other in all our hiddeness and mystery if we are to know who we truly are.