Give yourself a break: A reflection for Advent

Advent begins this week, and all around are the dawning signs of Christmas. Lights and trees go up, cards are written and greetings sent, presents are wrapped and parties are planned. 

I used to think it was important to resist this creep of Christmas for as long as possible, reserving Advent as a time of preparation for the celebration to come. But I reached Christmas Day feeling a little like I had missed the party.

There is a paradox. The Church prepares to celebrate the arrival of God in the most fragile of wrappings, while around us the world unwraps that gift before the big day. Some of us worry that the timing is all wrong. 

But the gift is still the same. 

If our pious preparation causes us to resist the celebrations around us, we miss out on some of the joy. Is this any better than being seduced by the frenzied consumerism of Christmas that is equally as likely to lead us to miss the point? 

The reflection below is an attempt to encourage you – and me – to welcome the best of both. To prepare once again to receive God, and to create space and stillness in the coming weeks for that. But also to embrace the celebrations that are beginning around us as they happen – however premature we feel they are – as the world receives its greatest gift: the one who once a year warms our hearts and joins us in one voice of Christmas song.

This Advent – give yourself a break.

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Give yourself a break:
Permission to pause
And carve out a space
Where you alone can rest
And rediscover small voices
Hushed by the frenzied pace of life.

Give yourself a break:
Just one moment in a day
To waste time away, and
Notice
Your stillness working to make straight
The tangled paths to your heart.

Give yourself a break:
Time to soak in pools of reassurance, as
Sacred Anticipation
Meets
Joyous Festivity
And the long-awaited celebration swells around you
In flushed faces and shimmering trees.

Give yourself a break:
And hear the ancient promises
As Redemption’s stories are reimagined and retold
Through gifts exchanged and carols sung
And your emptiness is filled
With the hope and joy of a promised child, who
For just a moment,
Becomes the centre of our gaze.

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Hineni: Here I am

I’m a bit young to know Leonard Cohen’s music well. But since his death I’ve discovered his final album, released last month and a profound insight into the wrestlings of a man staring death in the face.

Cohen was deeply spiritual, with Jewish heritage and a grasp of concepts from across different faith traditions. His final album pulls together the threads of a lifelong relationship with the spiritual, as he addresses, argues with and gives in to God, swinging like a pendulum between anger and contentment, questioning and acceptance. In the dying words of the album there is little resolution, with the wistful line, addressed to God: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine”. Cohen’s final words after a lifetime of grappling with God through song.

This album is full of vocational darkness, which I’ve written about before. We might think of God like a fairy godmother – a myth who makes all our dreams come true and keeps us living in cloud cuckoo land. The truth is far harder.

Vocational darkness is the cloud that settles when we say “yes” to God. Becoming who we are made to be – realising our full potential – these are painful journeys. The gateways and bridges to contentment and fulfilment have names such as sacrifice, cost, grief, pain and death. There is deep joy and peace to be found with God. But not without cost.

Death is the ultimate vocational journey. None of us knows exactly what happens beyond it. But I am confident that death is transformational, redemptive and an ultimate fulfilment of who we are – somehow. Only after will we know.

Cohen puts this vocational darkness at the heart of his title track: You Want it Darker.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this a song for our time, in a 10 minute reflection well worth listening to.

Surrounded, as we are in the West, by fearful uncertainty and anguished disillusionment, here is a song of challenge and protest and prophecy.

Cohen rails against God:
Why are we so broken?
How have we, created in the image of God, become so ugly and disfigured?
God how could you let this happen?

And within his anger is disillusionment about his own place in the world:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.

How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?
God, am I in or not?
Do you want me, or not?
Am I willing, or not?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?

If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.

And then comes his response to God. Hineni, he says. A Hebrew word owned by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.

Here I am.
I’m ready.
I don’t understand or I don’t agree or I don’t know… but I’m ready.
Here I am.
Choose me.

Cohen gives us glimpses of the invitation to respond to God. Hineni, he challenges us to say.

It’s a tough word. A mirror. It draws our questions and doubts away from God and back to ourselves. It is not God who is responsible for the terror of our world. It’s us. We might do it in God’s name but it’s still we who do it.

A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame.

How could we let this happen?

There is an antidote to the world’s suffering. It’s the work of good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to responding to their own vocational darkness and bringing about change. The hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Frankly, it’s easier to ask the questions without being bothered to find the answer.

The answer, Cohen says, is hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.

Donald Trump: The fairy godmother

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world”. Socrates.

Why has Donald Trump been elected president today?

That’s a question I’ve seen asked time and again on social media this morning. I’m not an expert in American politics, and the reasons for Trump’s rise to power are complex. But there is a subtle factor in his success that isn’t unique to the USA.

Across the Western world, privileged people are feeling disempowered. Those who have always done well, socially and economically, suddenly find themselves feeling hard done by.

There is a mistrust of the establishment and a suspicion of institutions. We can speculate on events of the past decade that have fed this ill feeling.

A vote for Trump, or (in the UK) for Brexit, or UKIP or Corbyn is, for some, an anti-establishment protest vote. Here are people or movements, set slightly apart from the establishment, who promise a voice to those who have been told that they are voiceless.

(This in itself deserves some unpacking. What has gone so wrong that those who have most privilege, most opportunity, most wealth, feel like they actually have least? What about those who are truly voiceless: victims of violence, racism and trafficking, asylum seekers, those who can’t afford to eat or stay warm – who is giving them a voice?)

Amidst the fear and anxiety and disempowerment appears a man who can promise to make all our dreams come true. He hears these narratives of disappointment and disillusionment, and he tells a winning story. The shady tycoon plays the part of fairy godmother. What does he offer that is so attractive that it sells to the USA a man so otherwise repulsive?

These quotes are from his victory speech this morning:

Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, we have to get together.

I will be president for all of Americans, and this is so important to me.

We will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream.

Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

We will double our growth and have the strongest economy anywhere in the world.

Nothing we want for our future is beyond our reach.

We must reclaim our country’s destiny and dream big and bold and daring.

While we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone.

Sounds pretty good right? The perfect remedy, in fact, to fear and anxiety about the future. The people will come together. Every man and woman will be encouraged to reach their full potential. No one will feel forgotten any longer. Jobs will be created and wealth generated. America will be safe, secure and successful. The dream will come true.

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But these words are the first bricks in the wall that will shut the privileged in, and everyone else out. There are no bridges promised here. Here is America saying me, me, me. In Trump’s references to international relationships he made it clear that any such relationships would be on America’s terms:

We will get along with all other nations [pause] willing to get along with us.

Watching this speech live, Trump’s pause was deliberate, manipulative and threatening.

This is a fairly tale that feeds fear and denies America’s responsibilities as citizens of the world. It reassures the disempowered by offering them safety and security at a cost that they won’t have to pay. America’s dream becomes the world’s nightmare.

There has to be another way. What story can people of faith – the everyday theologians on the ground – tell, to counter these narratives of fear and the fairy tales that promise all and deliver little?

One of the greatest challenges facing faith communities this century is the rise of religious and political extremism. I heard Rowan Williams speak recently about how the Desert Fathers and Mothers – the theologians of 2000 years ago – were “thinking through what it means to live as a guest in God’s world”.

Here is the seed of a radical theology of hospitality. We are not citizens of our nation, but of the world. And this is not our world, but God’s world. God is the host, and we are his guests. The people we hate are his guests too. You and I, Donald Trump and the jihadist fighter – all guests of God.

How does this begin to reshape our narratives of fear, anxiety and disempowerment?