Friday, 21 December 2012

Hold On To A Good Thought!

I am sure everyone here today is aware of the events which unfolded at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut and the sorrow that has been brought to so many families in that small town.  It was inevitable that people started to look into the life of the young man who carried out the killings and it has been reported that he spent a lot of time viewing violent video games.  That has started a debate in some newspapers as to whether violent images actually make people more prone to violent conduct.  It is a debate that has been going on for many years, long before there was video technology, and it seems to be very difficult to draw any definite conclusions.  Some years ago I took part in a television discussion where the opinions of two psychologists were given and they were reluctant to  make a link between violent images and behaviour.

What we can say, though, is that violent images do have an impact on us, even if it’s just that we turn away.  They are powerful, they stay with us, they can lead us to doubt the goodness in life.  That raises the issue of how we look after our minds.  We hear a lot about the importance of looking after our bodies through sensible eating and exercise but we also need to be careful what we watch and what we read and what we listen to.  A very early Christian called Paul once wrote a letter to a Christian community and he said:

‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble,  whatever is right, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.‘  (Philippians 4: 8) 

It is here that Mary, the mother of Jesus, can be  a help to us.  She had been through a difficult time.  She had been in the final stages of pregnancy when she had to make that journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, something like 90 miles, and probably on foot.  Bethlehem was crowded with people, there was no room for her and Joseph to stay anywhere, and she had to give birth in a place that was used to shelter animals, using rags to wrap her baby and a feeding trough to lay him to sleep.  Horrendous conditions but  she had one good thought to hold on to.  She had been told that her baby was very special.  In fact, he was the Son of God and the Shepherds who came to her confirmed that.  They had been visited by angels who told them about the birth of a Saviour, someone who was going to make a huge difference to the whole of humankind.  

And Mary listened to this good news.  She ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’  What that means is that she thought very deeply about her baby and what his birth meant to the world.  I don’t think that she understood everything about him but she knew that something had happened which was going to change things for the better.  She had grown up among a people who believed that one day a special person would be born in their midst and he would be like a light in the darkness - the darkness of sin and suffering and death.  And now she was thinking that her son was that person.  She had that good thought to hold on to.  

And it is a thought we can all hold on to.  There may be a lot going on  that makes us think the world is a very dark place but Christmas tells us about someone who pushed back the darkness.  He cared for people who were sick and had suffered loss; he spoke up for the poor and those who were denied justice; he gave his life for the sake of the whole world; he rose from the dead to show that this life is not all we have; and he promised that the whole of human history is moving towards a great climax when the darkness will be taken out of human experience entirely.  

I believe that when we think about these things, who Jesus was, why he came and what he has promised, it changes us.  No one loved as he loved, no one gave so much, no one can show us a better way to live.  I hope this Christmas you will take time to ponder these things in your heart, allow them to take root and to direct your future.  

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

What If . . .

I always like to have a seasonal book on the go at this time of year but I did not expect this  to be one.  It is set in London December 1952 when the ‘Killer Smog’ as it became known enveloped the city for four days.  It is estimated that around 12,000 people died and thousands more were made ill.  The smog is a sustained presence throughout the novel affecting the lives of all the main characters but it can be seen as symbolic of a far greater  evil which has descended on British society and seeping  into all the major institutions.  

Britain is presented as a satellite state of Nazi Germany having surrendered in 1940 after the disasterous Norwegian campaign.  There has been no invasion but successive governments are firmly under the thumb of Germany and gradually Britain is being moulded according to Nazi values.  There is a Resistance, the figurehead of which is Winston Churchill, constantly on the move to avoid arrest which would certainly lead to his execution.  

There have been a number of novels of the ‘What If . . ‘ variety which have tried to work out what might have happened had Germany prevailed in the Second World War.  The disturbing thing about this novel is that it suggests that the Britain of the 1940s may well have been fertile ground for the growth of Nazism.  There was a nationalism, an imperialism and to some extent an anti-semitism which Nazism could connect with,  and all of this is apart from the spirit of appeasement which existed from different motives.  

The main characters in the novel are all members of the Resistance, drawn in for different reasons and all with their own inner conflicts to resolve.  You really get to know them and while they are not consistently likable you end up caring about them.  The ingenious plot carries them along through many twists and turns to the climax on a Brighton beach.   

It is stunning thriller writing combined with impressive historical research and deserves to be read not just for its entertainment value but for the warnings that are there for all who have eyes to see.  In a lengthy and controversial ‘Historical Note’ Sansom points out that the nationalism which gave Nazism its opportunity is being seen all over Europe.  He writes:

‘ . . . all across Europe, in France, Hungary, Greece, Finland, even Holland, and most worryingly perhaps in Russia, fiercely nationalistic, anti-immigrant, and sometimes openly Fascist nationalist parties are significant forces in politics again.  And the terrible story of Yugoslavia in the 1990s reminds us just how murderous European nationalisms can still become.’  

There are also some harsh words about the SNP which have provoked responses from Scottish writer James Robertson and various people supportive of the SNP.

I would hope that the controversy does not completely obscure what is a stunning achievement by C.J. Sansom.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

William's Truthful Christmas.

A couple of weeks ago I dug out my CDs of Martin Jarvis reading the ‘William’ stories of Richmal Crompton.  I’ve been listening to them in the car.  They provide a nice audio comfort blanket against these dismal, overcrowded suburban roads. Traffic lights always against you, nerves shattered as another White Van cuts you up.  So let’s get William back on the sound system and listen to Martin, his mastery of every voice and his obvious love for the stories.

I became a William fan when I was about 10, roughly the same age as William has always been since the first book was published in 1922.  I had had enough of Enid Blyton’s posh kids whom I had a suspicion would want nothing to do with me,  so when a pal gave me a loan of ‘Still William’ I was ready to be hooked.  Mind you, I suppose William was posh too.  After all, his family had a maid and a cook but there was enough edginess and rebellion in him for a wee Pollok boy to identify with.  

The stories also extended my vocabulary in a way other children’s books did not.  Richmal Crompton is on record as saying that she did not originally intend the stories to be read by children, and that is reflected in her use of words.  Come in the old, battered family dictionary!  With that at my side I feared no word.  

One of my favourite stories is ‘William’s Truthful Christmas‘ which is to be found in that first book I read.  Martin Jarvis does a brilliant job with this.  It begins with William in church.  He actually enjoys singing the hymns and psalms although those around him would rather he didn’t.

‘Any stone-deaf person could have told when William was singing the hymns and psalms by the expressions of pain on the faces of those around him.  William’s singing was loud and discordant.  It completely drowned the organ and the choir.  Miss Barney, who stood just in front of him, said that it always gave her a headache for the rest of the week.‘    

William, however, had no use for the sermon.  ‘He considered it a waste of time’.  On this particular Sunday he was getting through the sermon by playing with his pet stag-beetle but he was drawn by the vicar’s frequent use of the word ‘Christmas’.   The vicar was calling on his flock to have a truthful Christmas, ‘to cast aside all deceit and hypocrisy and speak the truth one with another’.  William is brought under conviction and decides that this Christmas will be dominated by the practice of truth.  He and his family are to spend Christmas with an elderly aunt and uncle who live quiet lives and have no idea of the mayhem which is about to descend upon them.

On Christmas morning William receives a book of Church History from Aunt Emma and a box containing compasses, a protractor and a set square from Uncle Frederick.   When Aunt Emma asks if he liked the presents he says, ‘No.  I’m not int’rested in Church History an I’ve got something like those at school.  Not that I’d want ‘em if I hadn’t em.’  

This is just the beginning of William’s practice of truth which increasingly offends and infuriates those around him.  The climax comes when Lady Atkinson sweeps into the house.  A large, over-dressed, domineering woman she has come to bestow on Aunt Emma and Uncle Frederick her Christmas gift: a signed photograph of herself.  She says: ‘It’s very good, isn’t it?’  But then she makes the mistake of asking Williams opinion.  Committed to truth William responds: ‘It’s not as fat as you are.’  And undeterred by the howls of horror around him he goes on:

‘It isn’t’s fat as what she is an it’s not got as many little lines on its face as what she has an’ it’s different altogether.  It looks pretty an’ she doesn’t - ‘

The story ends with William totally disillusioned with the truth.  The vicar had said that this could make this Christmas the happiest ever but instead it had made it the worst.  ‘Everyone mad at me all the time.’  Thus his bold declaration with regard to truth: ‘I’ve done with it.  I’m goin’ back to deceit an’ - an ‘ what’s a word beginning with hyp -?’  

William discovered that truth is sometimes unwelcome, disturbing and offensive.  And while we like to keep anything dark and painful out of our Christmas celebrations there is a truth at the heart of Christmas that we might find difficult to face.  The truth is that Christmas is God’s judgement on humankind.  The sin we choose leads us further and further away from God, our commitment to lead better lives gets us nowhere, with all our ingenuity and expertise we still face fundamental issues like war and poverty and injustice.    The truth is we need a Saviour.  To quote Tom Wright:

‘Jesus exploded into the life of ancient Israel, the life of the whole world, not as a teacher of timeless truths, nor as a great moral example, but as the one through whose life, death and resurrection God's rescue operation was put into effect, and the cosmos turned its great corner at last.'

We cannot turn the ‘great corner’ on our own.  We need the One who was ‘Born to raise the sons of earth/Born to give them second birth.’