Shadow sides 6: Elijah and his depression

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

The epidemic of mental health issues is well-recorded, yet it continues to be difficult for many Christians to see it as it is: an illness no more sinful or shameful than a broken leg. Anyone can break their leg, no matter how holy they are. In the same way, anyone’s mind can end up in plaster. Depression’s regular companion is anxiety; add in a side-serving of PTSD and you have my trio. Charles Spurgeon, widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers in British history, suffered from at times crippling depression. Trevor Noah, South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, has wrestled with it. Winston Churchill coined the phrase ‘the black dog’ for his battles. Psalm 42 describes tears as food and the soul as downcast; Jesus’ sorrow overwhelms Him to the point of death (Matthew 26); yet for many mental health issues are the Christian’s dirty little secret.

Consider Elijah, whose story is found in 1 Kings 17-19. The people of God are in a bad way, wandering far from where they should be. Elijah’s life and ministry is to call them back to how they should be. For two chapters we get the sense that his is the ministry of mountain-tops and ecstasy; miracles, fire from heaven, slaughtering opponents, standing bravely for God, speaking truth to power. Yet in the wake of his biggest vindication, Elijah crashes. In chapter 19 he fears for his life and runs for the wilderness; he’s suicidal. All told, this episode will last somewhere in the region of 40 days – Biblical speak, we know, for a long time. He asks God to kill him.

What God does – and doesn’t  – do with his prophet is instructive on how we should deal with depression in ourselves and others. There’s no magic cure; first off it’s sleep and food. The latter is miraculously provided, but Elijah scarcely notices; sometimes when you’re depressed just eating a meal can seem like a major achievement. Here begins the hallmark of God’s treatment of Elijah’s depression – gentleness. He doesn’t tell Elijah to stop wallowing in self-pity; He doesn’t tell Elijah’s he’s sinning; He doesn’t tell Elijah to pull himself together. He moves towards Elijah; he meets Elijah where He is and doesn’t ask him to change. Instead, when he’s ready, He lets Elijah talk. He asks open-ended, ‘why’ questions; not closed ‘yes/no’ questions. It doesn’t matter to God that Elijah’s answer to those questions barely changes; He just lets Elijah talk. Neither does He overwhelm Elijah with another intense spiritual experience; earthquake, wind, fire (the mode of God’s presence on Carmel) all pass by with no hint of God’s presence. Instead He’s in the quiet whisper.

At the end of all this, there’s no indication that Elijah is better, that his depression has lifted. His answer to God’s questions are still the same; we don’t know if his desire to die has gone. Elijah’s role hasn’t changed, though. He’s still a prophet; God’s person in God’s place at God’s time. God reminds him of that and gives him a new mission. We don’t get to hear if Elijah even carries it out; as is so often the case for many of us, there is no resolution, no suggestion that Elijah’s problems are solved. Despite his depression – or maybe because of it – Elijah still has a role to play and a job to do.

If God doesn’t dismiss someone with depression, who are we to do so? Add to Elijah’s treatment plan therapy, medication and friends willing to play God’s role, and you have the right prescription. As with Thomas’ doubt, Paul’s thorn in the flesh and more besides, the label doesn’t concern God. If Elijah were in ministry today he might be told to take a sabbatical or change careers or find a less stressful job; in 1 Kings 19, however, God simply embraces Elijah, draws close to him and reminds him of his mission. It seems that God is less choosy about who He uses than we might be.

If there’s stigma, there shouldn’t be; but it’s not my problem. Hanging from a cursed cross, outside the city walls, bearing sin that wasn’t His, we follow a stigmatised Saviour. Which is God’s master-plan for all we need; in Him, God draws close to us whose minds are in plaster. If we know others for whom this is also the case, then let us sit with them. As the stigmatised Saviour does with all of us.

Also in this series:

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

Thomas: the saint who doubted

Esther: from whom God was absent

These posts are based on a series of sermons

Shadow Sides 5: Esther and the absence of God

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

It’s not that I don’t believe that God does dramatic things; it’s not that I haven’t had times when it feels that God is so close to me I could almost touch Him; it’s not that I believe that God’s closeness to me is dependent on my goodness. It’s just that I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a normative sense of God’s presence in the Christian life. There can be times – maybe illnesses, job losses, money problems, bereavements and the like, when God can seem far off. What do I do when the omnipresent is nowhere to be seen?

If there’s a book in the Bible where God seems absent, it’s the book of Esther. It’s a cracking read, rollicking along at a pace Lee Child would be proud of. The story it tells is one of thunder clouds on an ever-nearing horizon. Men manipulating and mistreating women, acting out of pride and territorial entitlement. Ethnic cleansing not only threatened, but marked indelibly in the diary. Manipulation and scheming. Not only is God not mentioned, not even once; He seems far off from the dark quotidian reality of sex, power and death. If there’s ever a time when one’s going to feel as if God is absent, it’s when you’re in Esther’s shoes. Used by men for sex, she and her people the Jews are facing extinction. There’s no miracles, no prophetic words, no mention of God’s name. Has God left the building?

No. He’s directing events, pushing His people into centre-stage, just where He wants them. Queen Vashti was the original Queen, dismissed by King Xerxes for having a mind of her own and not coming running when he beckoned. Insolence amongst wives across the nation was feared if news of this got out. A weak man dealt with a strong woman by pushing her out of the way. But in Esther another rose to take her place. Esther finds herself, through the misogynist actions of a king, in a place where she has a chance to have his ear and save her people from his threats of death. She’s beautiful inside and out; God doesn’t look at outside appearance, He looks at the heart. It’s Esther’s courageous heart that God uses; but King Xerxes is far from God, so all he’s interested in is Esther’s body. Both her courage and her looks are what we might call ‘natural’ gifts; they’re not the supernatural gifts of prophecy or healing or tongues we sometimes focus on. But they are what enable Esther to win a hearing from the place she gains in the king’s court. All this makes her God’s person in God’s place at God’s time. The most famous verse in the whole book is the one that comes closest to mentioning to God’s name, hinting at His presence behind the scenes:

who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

God may not be mentioned by name, but He’s there, asking Esther to act on His behalf. Does God seem absent? Have you stopped uttering His name? Does His action and His guidance seem far away? Trace the story of your life; see how He’s been at work behind the scenes. What are you ‘naturally’ good at? What makes you come alive to do?  What do you often get complimented or thanked for? Who knows, maybe  God has arranged for you to be where you are now, for such a time as this? Maybe you are the bearer of God’s presence for which you yearn so much.

I preached a version of this a couple of days ago, around the time a homophobic terrorist was killing partygoers in a Orlando nightclub. A hate-crime on a frightening scale. This is the worst-case scenario of many gay people, image-bearers of God, around the world. People I know by name are today scared. If it can happen in Orlando, it can happen here. The threat of extinction lies heavy in the air.

For such a time as this?

Also in this series:

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

Thomas: the saint who doubted

These posts are based on a series of sermons

Shadow Sides 4: Thomas who doubted

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

My wife and I were at the cinema – not unusual in itself. If we only had to think about ourselves, we’d be seeing a movie at least once a week. We were seeing a comedy – a very successful one, in a packed cinema. I was hopeful – there’s something very therapeutic about being in a roomful of people all laughing at the same thing. One problem: everyone was laughing, apart from me. At least that’s how it felt. Bev was laughing. The people on the other side of me, behind me, in front of me were laughing. I wasn’t. I think I laughed once in the whole film. Everyone else, it seemed to me, was laughing all the way through. I didn’t leave the cinema with aching sides and a perma-grin. I left disappointed, mildly depressed and doubting my sanity.

There’s something of that about Thomas, one of Jesus’ closest followers, in John chapter 20. Jesus, precious Jesus, who everyone thought had died, was alive. He’d appeared in the middle of a locked room speaking of peace and breathing the Holy Spirit on people. The disciples were overjoyed, awestruck, dumbfounded – apart from Thomas. He wasn’t there. We don’t know what he was doing. Maybe something normal like shopping; maybe he was so overcome by recent events that he needed space to himself. Whatever it was, when he returned to find his friends in wide-eyed wonder, he wasn’t in the same place – metaphorically as well as literally. So he wants some proof.

Poor Thomas. He’s often known as Doubting Thomas. But hold on. Who gave him that title? Christians. Not Christ. Christians. Thomas is a saint! He died 2,000 years ago and there are still churches named after him (including the one I grew up in).

Doubt. A sin, a sickness. Right? Well …

Take James 1:6.

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

Seems pretty unequivocal, doesn’t it? Except when you stop to consider that the word translated ‘doubt’ here isn’t about being unsure of a doctrine but about being indecisive, having a foot in two camps, being of two minds, being lukewarm. Not so unequivocal. Maybe doubt isn’t the sin or sickness it’s sometimes cracked up to be.

What does Jesus do with Thomas who doubted?

He seeks him out. He goes looking for him. He comes back, especially for Thomas. He doesn’t rebuke him, doesn’t tell him his doubt means he can’t be a leader or disciple or friend. He just comes looking for him, and invites him to do what Thomas said he wanted and needed to do – touch the wounds, go skin to skin with the resurrected one.

Which he doesn’t do. It’s one of the details the writer would have left in. It’s important. Instead there’s 5 simple, awestruck words:

“My Lord and my God!”

Thomas thinks his doubts need proof to assuage them. What he actually needs is something rather different. It’s not that proof is bad. Jesus offers him proof, invites him to it. But what Jesus gives him is something deeper – relationship.

Proof is OK. It matters. Proof can encourage and build up faith. But let’s face it; it’s rarely definitive. There are brilliant people who are atheists and equally brilliant people who are faithful Jesus-followers – and of many other religions too. No, proof may be helpful but it’s now what Thomas needs or with which Jesus is most concerned. We’re tempted to think that if only God would do this  we’d believe. Well, Jesus had already addressed that in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man; not even a messenger from beyond the grave will make the difference.

God is relationship, Trinity, perfect self-giving love. We’re made in that image. We’re made for relationship. So what’s most likely to convince us that this faith thing is real? Relationship with God and God’s people. Frustrating as the latter can be and mysterious as the former is, we need both. We’re made for it, and we’re restless until we find it. Doubt hits Thomas when he’s away from the group; staying in the group doesn’t make him immune to doubt but it does give him a context for it and allow him to be held – until Jesus seeks him out and draws close to him.

So let’s be kind, to ourselves and to all who doubt. Let’s not push them away, push God away because we finite beings are struggling to believe in a supernatural God. That’s to be expected. Let’s seek those who doubt out; let’s love them, not argue with them. Let’s listen to our own doubts and those of others; maybe we’ll learn something. And maybe, just maybe, in 2,000 years’ time we’ll find that there are churches named after us. Thomas was a saint, called and precious and sought out by God. We’ve reduced him to one who doubts.

God evidently has no problem with our doubts. We’re made in His image. So let’s commit to not letting doubt drive us or others away.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

These posts are based on a series of sermons

Shadow Sides 3: Hagar, used and abused

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

We know that Abraham is a miracle father. He and Sarah are promised children in a seemingly impossible situation, and become parents at an absurdly old age. No wonder the son to whom they eventually give birth is named Isaac; it’s laughable if it’s literal. So laughable that little Hagar, a servant, is called into action. Sarah can’t see how the promise of a child is going to come true, so she suggests to her husband that he sleeps with Hagar to get her pregnant and become a second wife.

That may shock us, but it may perhaps be even more shocking to discover that the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn polygamy. Servants exist to be at the service of others, and Hagar’s life doesn’t appear to get any better; she’s used for her body parts and biological capability. Her body can do what Sarah’s can’t, and so becomes the classic female victim of a patriarchal society, passed from servitude to servitude because of her body.

She becomes pregnant, and then finds herself victimised by the woman whose idea this all was in the first place (Genesis 16:6). Even more unpleasant, God won’t let her run away somewhere safer (16:9). She can’t catch a break.

Or so it seems. This is where things starts to turn, and Hagar starts to get a glimpse of a the bigger picture. She is indeed to have a son. The description given of him in Genesis 16:11-12 doesn’t seem complementary, but the translation may be filtered through some misunderstandings. It speaks of him being the child who will stand out from the crowd, stand up and think and act independently.

In a moment of fleeing, Hagar’s been spotted by God, so she names the place for that truth (16:14). When you’ve been used because of biology, mistreated at the hands of the originator of the plan, being seen is significant. The see-er has seen past the obvious to who you are as a person, and the bigger picture of which you are a part. You are no longer just a womb; you carry within you the father of nations. God’s purpose through Abraham was always to do something for every nation; with Hagar and thus Ishmael in the picture, blessing will flow to what we now call the Arab nations. The conspiring, conniving abuse of the aged Jewish couple becomes the birth of whole nations.

What’s more, she’s the first to know. This won’t become apparent to Abraham (and Sarah) until much later. Isaac is born, as promised, and there’s no longer any need for Hagar and Ishmael – or so it seems to Sarah (Genesis 21). She insists that her husband sends Hagar and her son away; she can’t stand a reminder of abuse and unfaithfulness in her house. Out of sight, out of mind. Guilt encroaches on Abraham’s conscience, and it’s as he realises the extent of what he’s done that God steps in and sets his mind at rest. He may have used and abused a woman, but God will knit that into the birth of nations (21:12). In the economy of God, nothing is wasted.

Hagar is off into the wilderness again, this time sent away rather than running. She is hopeless to the point of death. At which point, the God who sees proves He is also the God who hears (21:17). Not for the last time in the Bible, water flows in the wilderness and hope is restored.

If you’ve been bullied, used, abused (and if you haven’t, then you’ll know someone who has been), then you’ll know how reductive is. You become an outlet for a person’s needs and whims. The book and film Room takes this to unforgettable lengths. A woman is kidnapped, given a life limited to one room – and used for sex whenever the captor wants it. This leads to a child, a son. When escape is eventually effected, the beauty of the boy doesn’t exactly eradicate the pain that’s an inescapable part of the family history, but it does harmonise it into something all together more remarkable. Which is the way of God; He doesn’t wipe evil out. He does something far more difficult, and much more creative – he takes evil, and weaves into the warp and weft of grace. He brings nations from a single cell.

Ever been astonished that someone who’s suffered can offer forgiveness? Ever been floored by the generosity of someone with very little – giving away something that is, in the scheme of things quite small but in reality is everything to the giver? This is grace, the work of God, writ small. God does it on the macro – at the extreme, taking the torture and murder of an Innocent and bringing redemption through it.

Have you been the bully, the abuser, the user? You need to repent. When guilt threatens to overwhelm, listen for the distant harmonies of grace that can be weaved. It doesn’t excuse you, but it does mean that your evil wasn’t the end of the story.

Bullied? Victimised? Used? Abused? It’s not the end. Let the master composer play a tune beyond compare.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

These posts are based on a series of sermons

Shadow Sides 2: Paul and the problem that won’t go away

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine. 

Think of the man who wrote a good part of the New Testament (Paul) and the first words that come to mind probably aren’t “man whose prayer didn’t get answered”. There are good many other phrases that might come to your mind: genius, great writer, leader, certain, inspired, ethical, apostle, convert, road to Damascus, church-planter, missionary. Or maybe there are other, less-complementary words that come to your mind (of which the equally Biblical ‘hard to understand’ may be the mildest). Love him or hate him, he’s one of the single most influential people in the history of the Christian faith. It’s apparent that God used him to communicate some eternal truths and to help us understand what the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection as told in the 4 gospels means for us.

So what sort of person was he? What, when pressed, defined him in his own eyes and, most importantly, in God’s eyes? We get a fascinating insight into that in the letter we now call 2 Corinthians. It’s markedly different to the CV’s of the influencers in the early 21st-century:

I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.

If I have to “brag” about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus

(2 Corinthians 11:23-33, The Message)

We want our leaders to be in control; Paul admits to anxiety.

We expect leaders to have good relationships; Paul’s had arguments with friends.

We expect moral cleanliness from those in charge; Paul openly admits to plenty of time in prison and to being on the receiving end of brutal punishments.

We want to follow people characterised by strong competence; Paul invites us to follow him because he’s weak and he’s suffered.

He boasts about the things that have humiliated him and led to suffering because it’s in them that he finds himself to be similar to Jesus. Jesus, so anxious that He sweat drops of blood; feared God had abandoned Him; was betrayed and let down by close friends; was punished by the powers-that-be.

That’s not all. For Paul, there was more.

I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

(2 Corinthians 12:7-9, The Message)

Paul, so close to God that Jesus speaks directly to him; Paul, so inspired by God that 2,000 years we still read what he wrote to keep us going; Paul, writer of some of the most influential words in human history; this Paul has a problem he can’t shake, that God won’t take away no matter how much he pleads. It’s probably a physical problem – one serious enough to make him ‘beg’ for relief.

I know how that feels. I’ve been in pain every day for more than 16 years. On bad days, I’m told by people who know about these things, my levels of pain are worse than those of childbirth. I’ve begged for it be removed, and so have others on my behalf, many more than 3 times. Newsflash: I’m not as close to God as St. Paul.

It limits me. I’m also clinically depressed and anxious; I recently ended a church business meeting by breaking down in tears. I’m limited by mind and my body.

That, says Paul, is the point.

God’s fond of those who struggle, close to those in pain. Because when you’re weak, His strength is seen through you; His power is made apparent because mine is stripped away.

Got it all together? Sorted? Ducks in a row? That could be your biggest problem.

Painfully aware of limitations and dis-ability? Wrestling with weakness? Desperate for relief? God’s especially close to you.

 Also in this series:

Moses – frustrated and angry at God’s people

These posts are based on a series of sermons.

Shadow sides 1: Frustrated and angry Moses

The first in a series of posts adapted from sermons about some great characters from the pages of the Bible, with weaknesses and frailties that we might find all too familiar. 

Anger and frustration are frightening. They suggest being out of control – either ourselves, or at the hands of others. They speak of abuse and violence, fear and quaking in the corner. Good Christians shouldn’t get angry or frustrated. They should let go and let God.

Or should they? What if anger and frustration, rightly handled, take us closer to Jesus, mean we’re more like Him, not less?

Take Moses, for example.

We know about Moses. Performing signs and wonders in the courts of a despotic ruler; courageously leading a fear-stricken people; not afraid to lead a wander through the wilderness; parting seas and bringing water from a rock; receiving stone tablets of law in the handwriting of God. We know about Moses. Murderer with a speech impediment; often angry and frustrated, dying on the doorstep of his destination. Despite his successes, hardly a model leader. Or is he?

Let’s focus in on Moses, for the time being doing what he should be doing. At the end of Exodus 24, we read about him heading up a mountain with Joshua. For 6 days he watches; on the 7th day God speaks; for 40 days he’s on top of the mountain, enveloped by cloud which signifies the very presence of God, receiving the law which will shape the worshipping life of God’s people. It’s written on stone tablets, apparently by the hand of God Himself (Exodus 31:18).

While he’s doing what a leader of God’s people should be doing – spending time with God, listening to Him, paying attention to Him, God’s people are getting impatient.

Where is he?

This is taking far too long (32:1); let’s do something instead of just wait.

Aaron, left in charge by Moses, is pressured into collecting golden jewellery; it’s melted down and shaped into the image of a calf. This is what the people choose to worship; this, they say, took them out of Egypt. It’s ludicrous, but no less offensive for that.

God can see what’s going on, so He tells Moses. God’s less than happy, on the brink of wiping them out when Moses intervenes and tells Him it would be better for His reputation not to do so, to remain true to His word to make a great nation out of them. Moses’ self-control is all well and good, until he comes down the mountain himself. He sees and hears the chaos around him; in his anger he smashes the stone tablets of the law in pieces; burns the golden calf and grinds it dust, scattering the dust on water which the people are then forced to drink. Stand in leader Aaron shifts the blame to the people in a ducking of responsibility reminiscent of Adam and Eve; Moses allows those still for God to show themselves, and the rest are slaughtered. Even so, there’s still a plague to come as a reminder of such a naked act of disobedience and idolatry.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us, first, with the reality of frustration and anger. Leadership of God’s people is no easy task. Any attempt to do something under God’s authority – especially an act of leadership – will likely be laced with anger and frustration. You  might even say it’s part of the calling; you can see where you, your church, your people, your project is and where they should be – and the distance is great, the blindness of the people on the ground so rebellious, so wilful, that you might just snap. God feels it, Moses feels it, so you and I will feel it.

Even so, in your anger and frustration do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Do not go on a crusade that God has not given you; in your anger, do not run ahead of God and try to fix His problems for Him. He is more than capable – and just as angry, but not prone to sin.

Jesus does the ultimate Moses: He sees the sin, bears the consequences in terms of the isolation of people and the wrath of God – death, and provides a way beyond it in the shape of resurrection. Now He lives at the right of God, interceding, praying for His people.

So you feel angry and frustrated at the state of God’s people? Well you might; maybe you’re becoming more like Jesus. So leave the crusading and the fixing to Him, the perfect intercessor.

So often we think anger and frustration are marks of weakness. Too often they lead us into sin. Rightly managed they catapult us headlong to the arms of a God who knows only too well how we feel, yet still acts in love towards the objects of His anger and frustration – you, me.

We must be careful; anger and frustration can be corrosive and destructive. But in themselves they are not wrong. One way or another, they will carry us away. It’s up to us whether we let that be away or towards the one whose image we are made.

 

 

 

 

 

God’s terrible PR, Christian hypocrisy and the absurdity of Christmas

This post is an adaptation of a sermon I preached at the service of 9 lessons and carols at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town, 18th December 2013.

3 things have become briefly and abundantly clear to me as I’ve looked at the story of God this year. They’re not exactly new revelations, but here they are.

1) God is terrible at public relations

We say that the Christmas story is God’s big moment, the time when He unveils Himself to the world and shows us what He’s like. You’d expect power, shock and awe, wouldn’t you? You’d expect a solution to the problem of suffering, the meaning of life and incontrovertible proof. That’s what we’d do. Instead we get a lesson in how not to do public relations, the very worst sort of teaser campaign.

A star in the sky? We think it would be blindingly obvious, but if you’ve ever been to the desert you’ll know that when you look into the night sky you see a lot of stars. When I say a lot of stars, I mean a lot of stars. So you’d have to know the sky well. It’s not so much a sign as a needle in a haystack. Choirs of angels to shepherds on the hill? Brilliant – but totally unverifiable, and performing to people at the bottom of the economic food chain, in the middle of a night shift. They might as well have been hallucinating. A puking, bawling (despite the carol, he did cry) baby, born to a teenager before marriage. What’s more, she’s a virgin. Totally unverifiable. God’s revelation is, it seems, unverifiable and almost wilfully hard to come to grips with. Thanks. Don’t go into advertising, will you? Even God’s own book tells us that he wasn’t recognised. 

2) Christians are hypocrites

How many times have you heard, said or thought that? Those of us who are paid to hang around churches hear it a lot, especially at parties when people discover what we do for a living. Often we Christians try to say we’re not hypocrites; the truth is we are. At services of 9 lessons and carols there are readings from the Bible that tell the story of God’s dealing with people. It’s a story of people who can’t help but claim they’re special, have unique access to God and then go and do things their own way anyhow. The traditional first reading at a carol service is that brilliant picture from the Bible’s very beginning which shows us how people always leave God’s best in favour of what looks better in the short-term. To think that Christians and churches have such a habit of telling the rest of the world how to live, when so often we get it wrong ourselves. The message of the Christmas story – and rightly understood the Christmas story is all of human history – is that we are hypocrites and we’d do better to acknowledge that. So, sorry. Sorry we lecture and harangue and moralise when we can’t even sort ourselves out. I’m a hypocrite, Christians are hypocrites, all of us are hypocrites with aspirations and standards we know we can’t reach.

3) The message of Christmas is absurd

So where does this leave us? With an absurd solution, that’s where. No solution to the meaning of life, no answer as to why bad things happen to good people, no cure for cancer or HIV, no solution as to why my friend was murdered in September. None of the things I actually think I want. No wonder the darkness doesn’t even understand the light that’s been lit. I don’t understand it, either. Which is the point. I don’t get an answer; I get a baby named ‘God with us’ (Emmanuel). The message of Christmas is utterly absurd; it defeats my pride asking me to be content with not having an answer and to submit to a baby who cries and who’ll become a man dying a criminal’s death, and claiming an unverifiable resurrection. It asks me to be content not to know, but gives me permission to ask. Christmas tells me I’ve not so much got an answer as I have a companion.

In the long run, that may mean more. But it’s harder. Much harder. How foolishly wise God is.