I recently attended the spectacular annual carol service at Holy Trinity Brompton, in London. Nicky Gumbel, the vicar there, joked that if we took the Christ out of Christmas, we would only be left with M&S. We all laughed; because it was a good joke, but also because not only was it true, but it was becoming a reality for more and more of this nation. Some weeks ago, an ad to advertise a new Anglican website http://www.justpray.uk/ was blocked as it showed people from various walks of life reciting the Lord's prayer. There was quite a strong reaction from the public. Some thought that this was the right form of action, others thought it was further erosion of free speech; even the vociferous critic of Christianity Richard Dawkins thought it was ridiculous to ban the ad, stating, “I still strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/22/richard-dawkins-says-uk-cinemas-should-screen-the-lords-prayer
Christians are becoming more concerned by the reaction of the culture around them as it is often condemning. More and more, political correctness seems to be the new form of worship in this country, and while it is very important to protect minorities and the vulnerable, this very quickly turns to vilification of the 'other', with the other becoming the other if you follow my irony train. There should never be any vilification of the other, but sadly, there too often is. There is a Dr Seuss story called the Sneetches that illustrates this point very well. It should be required international reading. In my experience, and as a writer, I find most journalists and writers of literature I have met are liberals who are intolerant of anything they deem to be ‘religious,’ which flies in the face of their own liberalism, a tenet of which is tolerance towards those of difference and freedom of press, speech and religion. Most have little understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. The term Christian is very loaded – mostly with misapprehension. For starters, there is a tacit understanding that if you are a Christian you must be thick. I won't get into main course or pudding here, but suffice to say there is too much gravy and cream of the wrong order inadvertently piled on top of the meat of the thing. Grasp of irony in this area, there is not. In these circles, it usually doesn't even cross people’s minds that you might be a person of faith - it does lead to some interesting conversations.
Whatever one's perspective, it does feel sad to me, that in a country built on Christian values, an ad that shows the comforting aspect of reciting the Lord's prayer in a traditionally and once free Christian country can cause such offence, particularly when so many could doubtless do with a little comfort, if not from belief in Christ, then at the very least inclining towards the notion of transcendence at a time in our history when it seems that so much evil abounds; though, of course, I am aware that for a vast majority of this country, the word 'Christian,' does not evoke a positive reaction, and there is some blame that the Christian public must own for that and I put my hand up too. Many of us are following the difficult path of Christ, many of us, even those of us in the church, are stumbling about, but ever hopeful, we keep at it!
For many, Christmas is not a happy time, because it brings back unhappy memories of the past, given how loaded with significance it all is in terms of family. There are families who have and are experiencing breakdown. Bitterness sets in when forgiveness cannot flow and it blights people’s lives if left unchecked. Sometimes there needs to be separation when past trauma continues to be inflicted, one way or another on an individual or individuals. The psychologist Dr Joshua Coleman, a specialist in family estrangement believes family estrangement is very much on the rise and points to 'individualism,' as the main cause. "Half a century ago, we saw a gradual shift away from the traditional institutions which were expected to make us happy such as the church and the family, towards the individual's rights, needs and feelings. The rise in divorce is one example - people no longer felt the need to stay married out of duty. You stay married if it makes you happy, if it fulfils your needs. If it doesn't you leave. With the family, it's similar. People find it easier to walk away because it does not make them happy" http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-3346303/Families-lonely-Christmas.html
But there is hope. The message of Christ is one of love, forgiveness and grace. The church is the family of God and is or should be an inclusive environment where the broken hearted can find solace and healing. The church needs to be a place where those that have been rejected and even despised by their own families can find acceptance. As people are not perfect, the church is not perfect but we must embrace each other and be open and honest with one another 'bearing each other's burdens' as the bible puts it, in order for healing and restoration to flourish. The wonder of the Christian life is that once adopted and accepted, it is powered by the mystery of the relationship of the indwelling Holy Spirit, something that may well sound giddy bonkers to those that have not experienced it, given that it is indeed experiential. Imagine trying to push a train up a hill with only manpower; a train operates so much better with steam or electricity - so it is with the human engagement with the Holy Spirit; and it can be utterly transforming and life-changing.
Gift giving and celebrating with family and friends is valuable, as is the feast; these traditions are part of what remind us of who we are in terms of our humanity and our connections to one another; but this Christmas, let's remember the event that inspired it: the Christ part, the love part, the acceptance of those who have had a different experience, or point of view part, the reaching out in grace and mercy part, the inclusive part; all mighty parts of the magnificent whole that Christ came to give us.