Happy New-ish Year to you all.
If Christmas is the most stressful season, New Year is surely the most depressing (particularly for natural pessimists like me). Once the celebratory fireworks have faded, the January skies look even blacker and bleaker than before. Once the midnight champagne has worn off, we’re left with a headache and the prospect of returning to the daily grind and the same old, same old. The date’s changed but that’s about all.
And there’s all too often the added guilt of broken resolutions; the shine rapidly wearing off our new good intentions; the sense of a new blank sheet begun and then almost immediately blotted. Not to mention all that Christmas food to work off.
Out in the wider world, there don’t seem to be too many causes to celebrate either right now – unless we’re holding out blind hope that a simple change of calendar can close the door on all the troubles of 2015.
Last year was bracketed by the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the Paris bombings, and filled with frightening tales of the continued rise of Islamic State and religious extremism. The horrific and seemingly insoluble Syrian civil war has dragged dismally on, sucking in ever more foreign military powers and creating ever more traumatised refugees. Global economical recovery continues to stall. And the threat of human-made climate change looms ever larger and more uncontrollable, with extreme weather affecting as many people as extremist religion.
And now David Bowie and Alan Rickman have died.
How are we to respond to such times? Can we find any hope to hold on to, or to hold out to others? Or do we just put our fingers in our ears and sing happy choruses, hoping that it will all go away if we ignore it, or that maybe God will magically sort it all out for us?
I’d suggest that on the contrary a good place to start is lament. We don’t need to have answers. We can weep and cry out to God, wordlessly if we have no words, or even shout and get angry with him if it helps.
On our own?
Of course, some will respond that such times of global trouble merely demonstrate that God doesn’t exist, doesn’t care or is powerless to help – or may even be a monster inflicting these troubles on us for fun. There’s no hope or help to be found in religion; we’re on our own.
I disagree. But I also think that the atheists and agnostics have a point. We may not be on our own, but in a sense it is up to us. We can’t just sit back and expect God to bail us out without any involvement on our part. We’re all to some extent part of the problem and can all in some way be part of the solution.
Is this the End?
Of course, how we respond to such times will depend on our personality and also our theological perspective.
Some are quick to see any series of disasters as signs of the End Times; that Christ’s return and God’s final judgement are imminent. I suppose there’s always a chance that this time it could be true, but I’m slightly sceptical about such predictions. People have been predicting Christ’s soon return since shortly after he left the first time, and many terrible times have hit the world since then without ushering in the End. The End will come one day, but we really have no idea when and it might not be for another billion years.
Yet perhaps there is still something helpful we can take from this view. There is a bigger picture, and God’s kingdom is coming, albeit often in gradual, hidden and unnoticed ways. These troubles are not the end, and they will eventually pass. And meanwhile God is immanent, Immanuel, close, here with us, redeeming the present sufferings of humanity. There is always hope.
And in the meantime we all live our daily lives in the light of eternity; each day could be the last for any of us (cheery new year thought). So I for one could probably live more fully, making each day count a bit more.
Repent or perish?
Others, viewing God more as a Righteous Judge than as a Loving Father, see times of trouble as God’s present judgement to punish the wickedness of humanity.
I do accept that God is righteous and that (precisely because of his love and goodness) he hates injustice, particularly towards the poor and outcast. But I find the idea that global troubles are God’s judgement hard to swallow, not least because these troubles always tend to affect the poorest most.
Yet there may again be something useful we can take from this view. God cares about injustice and suffering, and wishes to put them right; we can be part of that. And more helpfully than pointing the finger at other people’s sins as to blame, we can follow the great saint Michael Jackson’s advice, take a look in the mirror and see if there’s anything that needs changing in ourselves. In my case possibly starting with my new beard.
My own view is that God is redemptively present and active in the world, but not micromanaging and controlling everything that happens. The present troubles are not necessarily signs either of his displeasure nor harbingers of the End. Rather I think they are simply the ongoing travails of an imperfect world and flawed humanity in our slow upward struggle towards wholeness and maturity, against the ever-present downward forces of entropy and chaos – or sin and evil if you prefer.
Meanwhile we can maybe each play a small positive role. God willing, we can be bearers of his light, incarnations of Christ, participating in larger or lesser ways in God’s great work of redemption.
Individuals can change the world – look at Martin Luther King, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Malala. But none of these people changed the world entirely by themselves; nor did they change the whole world, only a part of it. Working with like-minded others, we can all at least be a part of something that changes a small part of the world slightly for the better.
So now, where’s that beard-trimmer?